“Something in Scotland has changed” in recent weeks and the Scottish Conservatives are now on the path to blocking an SNP majority, according to Ruth Davidson.
Speaking on the opening day of the spring party conference on Saturday, the Scottish Conservative Holyrood leader will say the country has “passed peak Nat” and argue the Tories now have the strength to block an SNP majority, as they did in 2016.
A long-projected landslide SNP victory at May’s Holyrood election and Scotland’s wider constitutional future appear to hang in the balance after two consecutive polls found support for keeping Scotland in the UK has edged in front.
The latest findings from YouGov suggest 51% of Scots now back the union, with 49% supporting independence when ‘don’t knows’ are excluded.
YouGov polling data indicate Nicola Sturgeon’s party will still achieve a majority but a second poll, conducted by Savanta ComRes for The Scotsman newspaper, suggests the SNP could miss out by a single seat. It mirrors YouGov’s 51-49 split on the union.
The shift comes following 22 consecutive polls showing majority support for Scotland leaving the United Kingdom, and opposition parties believe it could be an early sign of the momentum shifting just weeks before the official campaign period gets under way.
Addressing the party faithful on Saturday, Ms Davidson will call for “pro-UK voters” to unite and give their votes to “the largest opposition party”, the Scottish Conservatives, to derail the SNP’s push for another referendum.
‘The battle is under way’
She will say: “It’s now just 53 days from polling day for the Scottish election on May 6. In two weeks’ time we will enter the official campaign period. But the reality is that the starting gun has already been fired. The battle is now under way.
“Over the last few weeks, something in Scotland has changed. We’ve passed ‘peak Nat’ and, more and more, Scotland is saying ‘enough’.
“An SNP majority government – once seen as a ‘nailed-on’ near-certainty, and for so long the outcome almost universally forecast amongst the pundits – now looks much less sure.
“It’s vital that majority is stopped because it’s the only way to be certain that Scotland isn’t dragged back into another independence referendum when we all need to be focusing on building a recovery from the pandemic.”
Ms Davidson will argue that the SNP falling short of an overall majority five years ago was enough to “derail” the push for a new vote on Scottish independence and claim this was achieved by unionists lending their vote to her party.
“At the last election, in 2016, the SNP fell just two seats short of an overall majority. That derailed their drive for another independence referendum five years ago,” she will say.
“And it was achieved because people right across Scotland who wanted to stop the SNP gave their ‘party’ votes to the Scottish Conservatives. We did it together, and we can do it again.”
PM says no to new vote
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is expected to use his appearance at the conference on Sunday to underline his opposition to granting a second referendum, even if the SNP wins a pro-independence majority in May.
The Tory leader’s pitch will aim to blunt demands for a new vote on separation but it could also risk undermining Scottish Tory claims that a big SNP win will inevitably lead to a vote on quitting the UK.
The Telegraph reports Mr Johnson will stand firm against granting the legal section 30 order required for a Westminster-endorsed referendum, and will push the line that there will be no new vote “in the middle of a pandemic”.
But the prime minister, who is understood to be ready to push ahead with a campaign of spending by the UK Government in Scotland to bolster support for the union, was accused of behaving like former US president Donald Trump.
SNP depute leader Keith Brown said: “The fact that the prime minister and his Tory colleagues are clearly spending so much time discussing how they can combat support for independence shows they are preparing for a referendum they know is inevitable in the face of a Holyrood majority for one.
“Bluntly, they wouldn’t be spending so much time on the issue if they thought their Trump-like bid to defy democracy could hold.”
Speaking ahead of the conference, Scottish Liberal Democrat campaign chairman Alistair Carmichael said people are “sick to the teeth of the nationalist double act of the Tories and the SNP”.
“Both of them are desperate to keep alive the constant stress and division of the independence debate when most Scots just want to put the recovery first,” Mr Carmichael said.
“Most people don’t want to spend another five years fighting over flags – they want parties that will prioritise real issues like the economy, mental health and our NHS.”