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Balmoral Blues? Scottish Attitudes to Conservative Leadership

Photo by Rico Meier on Unsplash

In our previous blog we explained that Scottish voters had less respect for Boris Johnson but felt he was less antagonistic to Scotland and Scots than Margaret Thatcher. This week’s news that the Conservative party has a new leader – and thus the UK a new Prime Minister – might reasonably be seen as a chance for the Conservatives to recover some ground in Scotland given negative attitudes to her predecessor.  Is there scope for new leadership to soften Scottish views of the party? 
Recent Scottish Election Study Scoop polling, from a survey conducted in August 2022, shows that the wider Scottish electorate doesn’t have strong preferences about Liz Truss. With the caveat that these data are now a few weeks out of date, Scots very narrowly preferred her opponent Rishi Sunak, with 20 % indicating that they would rather he win and 18% favouring her. The most popular answer to the question, with around 53% support was for ‘neither’ leader. This indicates, perhaps, how difficult it currently is for any UK Conservative leader to get a hearing in Scotland. 

When news of her election broke, YouGov polled their Great Britain sample and found that 57% of Scots were disappointed that she was to be Prime Minster, the highest level of disappointment in the sample. Almost 70% believed she would be about the same as, or worse than Boris Johnson. Although this subsample is not large enough nor drawn in such a way to be fully representative of the Scottish population as a whole, it provides a rough indication of how hostile the environment is for the new PM north of the border. 

That said, the new prime minister should prove to be the more popular option among those who voted for the Scottish Conservatives in the last UK General Election, perhaps unsurprisingly, given her fairly convincing victory among party members. For this group, SES Scoop polling show 41% preferred Truss and 18% preferred Sunak, with almost one third expressing no preference.  

To look at it another way, of those who voted Conservative at the UK general election in 2019, those who preferred Liz Truss were much more likely to say they intended to vote Conservative in any future Westminster election – 80% for those who strongly preferred Truss, and 75% among those who slightly preferred her. Comparable figures were in the 60s among those who preferred Sunak. In other words, Truss attracts more reliable Conservative voters than Sunak, and her selection may prove a positive for the party in Scotland given she is ostensibly more likely to shore up core supporters. 

But there are also numerous challenges in Scotland for Liz Truss.  

First, we know that there is a lot of volatility in the pro-union side of the political spectrum, with many voters switching from one party to another in both Holyrood and Westminster elections, as well as ticket-splitting in the former, all in an effort to stop the SNP. It’s worth noting that 2019 Labour and Liberal Democrat voters far preferred Sunak to Truss (high twenties for Sunak to mid-teens for Truss), so she might face greater difficulty in attracting strategic votes from other parties. SNP voters, perhaps predictably, preferred ‘neither’ to Truss by a ratio of 7 to 1. 

Second, recent Panelbase polling asked respondents how they would vote in a future referendum if the UK retained Boris Johnson as PM or if either Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss became PM. Without mentioning any UK prime minster, baseline support for Yes was 49%. Mentioning Boris Johnson prompted Yes support to increase to 52%. When Truss and Sunak were mentioned, the result was essentially identical (51% and 52% respectively). The figures suggest that for the Scottish electorate as a whole, the specific Conservative politician in charge is immaterial, but it is striking that the mere mention of any Conservative PM nudges a handful more Scots into the Yes camp. This demonstrates how shaky the ground is for pro-union elites, although it also suggests that attitudes could move in the other direction were a Labour government elected at Westminster. 

Third, attitudes among the Conservative party in Scotland are at odds with attitudes among English Conservatives on the union, with Scottish Conservatives more at odds with the preferences of the Scottish electorate as a whole than their English counterparts are. On the issue of independence, in YouGov’s March 2022 poll, almost one quarter of English and Welsh Conservatives supported Scottish independence, compared to 2% among Scottish Conservatives two months later. In their August 2022 poll, YouGov found that 32% of English Conservatives believed it should be up to the Scottish Government to decide on a referendum, compared to only 10% of Scottish Conservatives in Panelbase’s recent poll. 

The new PM inherits a range of policy challenges – including the intertwined energy and cost of living crises facing the country this winter and the continued conflicts between the UK Government’s vision for Brexit and the provisions of the Northern Ireland Protocol – but also a parliamentary management problem, given that her Westminster colleagues preferred her losing opponent.  

But the new Prime Minister doesn’t just have a parliamentary management problem, she has a party management problem. Conservative supporters in different parts of the union have very different understandings of what the state is, how it should operate, and who should take decisions within it.