South of the border, a Labour majority is a foregone conclusion. Yet in Scotland, in almost all 57 seats, contests are predicted to be tight. ‘Knife-edge,’ is the phrase heard on repeat, most recently from First Minister John Swinney. While the Scottish central belt has drawn intense interest – given polls have consistently suggested there will be a Labour resurgence with even Glasgow looking to turn red – rural Scotland has received a little less attention. Sir Keir Starmer’s party is less a player, with key battlegrounds here a race between the SNP and the Tories.

There is a long held Scottish narrative that boasts Scotland is more left-leaning than the rest of the UK – and yet it is the one part of Britain where polls have suggested the Tories might actually make gains. The Scottish Conservatives are vying to hold onto their six constituencies – with optimists hoping the party may even pick up MPs on polling day. Eight seats across Scotland will be a shoot out between the SNP and the Tories; all of these are largely rural and priorities differ from those of central belt voters. In the south of Scotland, these are Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale; Roxburgh and Selkirk; and Dumfries and Galloway – all straight blue-yellow tussles. Across the north east, the SNP and the Tories are head-to-head in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine; Aberdeenshire North and Moray East; and Gordon and Buchan. The new Angus and Perthshire Glens is another two horse race. It is an amalgamation of five old constituencies, all previously SNP. But the Tories have hopes here – though it would be a stretch to call them high.

There is a long held Scottish narrative that boasts Scotland is more left-leaning than the rest of the UK – and yet it is the one part of Britain where polls have suggested the Tories might actually make gains.

The party is fielding Stephen Kerr in the Angus seat, an MSP with a particular skill for winding up the SNP backbench during his time in Holyrood. Kerr previously stood to be an MP in Stirling, where he studied, but was beaten by Labour in 2005 and the SNP in 2015. He saw success in 2017, serving until Boris Johnson’s snap election two years later. In the Scottish parliament, Kerr has worked as the Tories’ Chief Whip and the Shadow Education Secretary. And the Conservative MSP ruffled feathers last year after writing in the Telegraph that Holyrood’s proceedings are too ‘rigorously controlled’ by Scottish government ministers, adding that ‘tribal politics is our curse’. His criticism received support from former SNP MP Alex Neil. This time around, the Tories are running on a fairly simple ticket – ‘SNP out’ – and encouraging tactical voting in areas where they are the nationalists’ main rivals.

Perth and Kinross-shire is a key target seat for the Tories, with candidate Luke Graham hoping to have done enough to convince voters come Thursday. The party has certainly brought out its big guns: one local householder was surprised to find the familiar face of Theresa May leaving a jaunty message on their doorbell camera as she popped a leaflet for Graham through the letterbox at the weekend. Graham’s rival is the longest-serving SNP MP at Westminster and former Runrig musician Pete Wishart: he won Perth and Kinross-shire by just 21 votes in 2019 and he faces a tight contest this time too.

In West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, cabinet minister Andrew Bowie is fighting to retain his seat. Bowie won by a fine margin in 2019 and there is anxiety that one of the party’s more prominent and charismatic figures may be lost. And, speaking of interesting characters, all eyes will be on Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross in Aberdeenshire North and Moray East. The outgoing party leader declared last minute he was standing for the seat after the party dropped David Duguid, who is recovering from an illness in hospital. But subsequent unhappiness within the party put pressure on Ross and just days later he announced he would be standing down as party leader – and resigning his MSP seat if successful in the election. The constituency has had its fair share of scandal: Scottish Labour’s candidate for the area was ditched by the party for pro-Putin posts days later, while Jo Hart, the constituency’s Reform candidate, made headlines after she was found to have called the Royal family ‘benefit scroungers‘ on social media.

Starmer’s Labour party has struggled to attract support in these rural seats. This is partly to do with demographics and partly to do with policy. The constituents in these areas tend to be older and more socially conservative while polling tends to suggest voters are less concerned with headline-grabbing identity politics in favour of tangible issues of taxes, healthcare and land use. And concerns about the future of the oil and gas industry are particularly pertinent here. Voters’ opinions on new oil and gas licences tends to differ in rural Scotland from those in the central belt where environmental concerns often take priority. Here the Tories – the only Scottish party to pledge to grant new oil and gas licences – expect to do well.

There remain two main difficulties: voters motivated to use their ballot as a rebuke, and the rise in popularity of Reform UK.

Yet there remain two main difficulties: voters motivated to use their ballot as a rebuke, and the rise in popularity of Reform UK. Recent surveys suggest as many as one in six Scottish Conservative voters are switching to Nigel Farage’s party, with the party polling at around seven per cent across Scotland – while some pollsters suggest that in Douglas Ross’s contest, Reform could take more than 11 per cent of the vote share. In those knife-edge seats, this could seriously threaten the Tories’ chances. ‘It’s going to be very, very tight,’ another Tory insider says, ‘A vote for Reform or staying at home on Thursday in those seats would mean an SNP candidate winning by the back door. In some seats it’s only going to take a handful of people voting Reform and the SNP has won.’

Yet despite some Reform candidates previously demonstrating pro-indy tendencies, Farage’s party is not expected to have the same effect on SNP supporters. Admittedly, in previous contests, there has been such a phenomenon as an ‘SNP Brexiteer’ who shifted to the Conservatives because they trusted that Johnson really would ‘get Brexit done’. ‘So stranger things have happened,’ one Tory insider said – with more hope than reason that some Nats might also peel off to Farage’s start-up.

Polling experts aren’t convinced – and neither is First Minister John Swinney. Describing Farage’s views as those he ‘just cannot stomach,’ Swinney told me at the weekend that: ‘I think it’ll be interesting to see the extent to which the Reform support is sustained up until polling day because I think people will look at some of the comments from Reform and some of the behaviour from Reform and not quite fancy what they’re seeing. As polling day approaches, people will think “Do I really want to be associated?”‘ He’s not wrong – two candidates have already ditched the party after more controversial comments made by their now ex-colleagues came to light. Yet there is no hesitation when I put the same question to a Conservative campaigner: ‘Oh, we’re bricking it [about Reform],’ he says.

So while SNP is promising to prioritise Scottish independence by seeing off the Tories, the Tories are promising an end to the indy debate if they can manage to keep the SNP off their turf. There is little positive messaging in either campaign – both designed around a tacit acknowledgement that voters are tired, frustrated and expressing their disgruntlement by voting as much against what they don’t want, rather than for what they do. Both SNP and Tory insiders say voters in these seats are more motivated to turn out because they understand their ballot has real weight – but there is still a strong mix of apathy and anger on the doorsteps.

Ultimately this will be an election of protest and no more so than in these knife-edge Conservative and SNP battleground seats where voters intend to use their ballot as a cutting rebuke against two long-serving governments, the state of the country and the choice of parties on offer. Instead of voting to get a group in, voters seem more concerned with figuring out which party is best placed to keep others out. Tactical voting may be a blunt instrument but it is, in Scotland, wielded to send a sharp message.

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