The Conservatives have their “nose in front” in the race to be Scotland’s largest opposition group, the party’s leader has claimed on the last day of campaigning ahead of Thursday’s parliamentary election.
With the governing Scottish National party seemingly cruising to a landslide victory, attention has focused on whether the Tories can supplant Labour as the second largest group in the Edinburgh parliament.
Thursday’s vote will be an important test of whether the Conservatives can regain their status as a political force in Scotland, where associations with Margaret Thatcher’s political legacy have long condemned the party to the margins.
Rather than tout itself as a potential party of government, Ruth Davidson, Scottish Conservative leader, has built this year’s campaign around her personal popularity and the promise of stronger opposition to the SNP — particularly on the issue of independence.
“Labour, you’ve had your chance,” she told a final campaign rally in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden. “Move over and let someone else have a go.”
After the rally, Ms Davidson said polling and other evidence made her confident the party would not only score its best result in the 17-year-old Scottish parliament, but would also win more seats than Labour.
“We believe our nose is in front going into voting tomorrow,” she said.
The Tory rally was held near a section of the botanic garden dedicated to saving Scotland’s rare plants, an appropriate setting for a party that won only one constituency Scottish seat in last year’s UK general election.
With the SNP expected to sweep almost all Holyrood constituencies on Thursday, the key to Tory success or failure will be the election’s second vote regional lists, which make the parliament more proportionally representative but which yields results that are particularly difficult to forecast.
Opinion polls suggest there is little gap between the Conservatives and Labour, which once dominated Scottish politics but has seen its decline accelerate since a section of its support backed independence in the 2014 referendum.
At a campaign stop in south Edinburgh, home to the only Scottish Westminster constituency that Labour managed to hold last May, party leader Kezia Dugdale contrasted her proposals for higher income taxes to support public spending with the cuts she said would result from continued SNP rule.
Ms Dugdale accuses the Conservatives of inflaming dispute over Scotland’s constitutional future in order to cast itself as defender of the UK, while complaining that the SNP will not make full use of new devolved powers.
“Other parties want to spend the next five years arguing about the past, when Scotland just wants to move on and help our people get on,” Ms Dugdale said.
The SNP campaign has centred firmly on the personal appeal of Nicola Sturgeon, party leader and first minister.
Ms Sturgeon, who took over as first minister after former SNP leader Alex Salmond stepped down when voters rejected independence in the 2014 referendum, said she was seeking a “personal mandate”.
“This election is about who becomes first minister and who forms the next government,” Ms Sturgeon told hundreds of supporters at a street rally in Glasgow.
The scale of the SNP victory is likely to rest in part on turnout, with some party officials seeking to ensure that supporters are motivated to vote by warning that, despite a 30-point lead in the polls, it could fall short of winning a majority of seats.
SNP concerns centre on the potential for some independence supporters to cast their second, regional list, vote for the Scottish Greens, who also back leaving the UK but want more radical use of Scotland’s new powers to tax the better off.
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