Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election: Kate Forbes' admission Scottish Government doesn't understand the Highlands may help Tories win more seats at general election – John McLellan

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross delivers a speech at the annual Conservative party conference in Manchester (Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross delivers a speech at the annual Conservative party conference in Manchester (Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

With only two days to go before the Rutherglen by-election, the SNP has been handed an unexpected boost, a reminder of how Perfidious Albion conspires against the interests of Scotland’s people. Not content with approving production at the Rosebank oilfield west of Shetland, a climate crime which will force thousands of North Sea oil and gas workers to continue accepting dirty money while we all bake, the UK Government will compel seven Scottish councils to accept £140 million to regenerate town centres. What an insult to the cool boulevards of Clydebank, Irvine and Coatbridge.

It’s yet another slight against the SNP-Green Scottish Government, with £349m thrown at 18 projects through the UK Levelling Up fund, including £20m for Kilmarnock’s Palace Theatre, and £19m apiece for the redevelopment of Stirling’s Forthside and Fife’s Riverside Park. Worse, there’s £20m to reroute the A78, and even if it helps transform Greenock town centre ─ one of those unfortunate enough to receive £20m from the regeneration fund ─ won’t it just encourage planet-killing car driving?

As for those two green freeports in Cromarty and on the Forth, no wonder Edinburgh’s SNP group fought tooth and nail to oppose such a brazen attempt to exploit the labour of doughty Leithers. And didn’t the UK Government realise the SNP was perfectly capable of having ferries built in Scotland before barging in with £27m to pay for a new roll-on, roll-off ferry for Fair Isle to be built in Norway? How very dare they!

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross even had the temerity to suggest the UK Government could step to dual the A9 all the way to Inverness, as the SNP promised in 2008. How much more of this undermining of devolution can Scotland take?

Enough of the sarcasm, but just as it’s taken time for the UK Government to realise that, publicly at least, everything it does in Scotland sparks SNP fury, the SNP-Green alliance seems incapable of applying the law of diminishing returns. Voters might have listened once, but now the cut-and-paste manufactured outrage at every announcement not made by the Scottish Government whistles in the wind above their heads.

Similarly, when Westminster has stepped in to use Scotland Act provisions to halt unpopular policies with UK-wide implications, like gender recognition reform or the deposit return scheme, what most voters hear is that something they didn’t fancy has been stopped, not the subsequent constitutional knicker-twisting.

Not that Conservative interventions will make much difference in Rutherglen, as voters weigh up their options ─ which for over half of them will be not to bother ─ but it would be surprising if canvass returns from Scottish Labour’s revived army of doorknockers reveal “respect” for the Scottish Parliament or more devolution are top priorities. Yes, climate change might be high on young people’s agendas, but like any other UK constituency, most voters will be talking about the rising cost of living and worries about the health service, coloured by a sense of exasperation that improvements can’t come quick enough.

Last week’s polling again suggests Labour will be backed to deliver change now the party is re-learning the lesson it squandered, that the road to power is paved with pragmatism, not extremism. But as the lead over the Conservatives narrows to ten points, it’s not with the enthusiasm which ushered in the Blair administration, more a feeling that it’s time to give someone else a shot.

Like the Lib Dems’ predictable “We’re not the Tories” approach, “It’s our turn now” isn’t the most inspiring election slogan, but it looks as if it’s the best that can be said of an increasingly vague programme in which Labour’s priority is not scaring the horses in northern England’s Red Wall seats. Do Rutherglen voters understand what Labour’s plans are for North Sea oil, do they know how they will improve the NHS, or how they will manage the spiralling welfare bill while controlling public spending?

Labour has promised to create Great British Energy, a state-owned organisation which according to Dame Jackie Baillie will save households £1,400 a year, which sounds very like another figure plucked out of thin air and with a high chance it will go the same way as the SNP’s now-abandoned plan for a public energy company. But it might be enough.

The weekend’s Opinium poll of 3,000 voters for The Observer, including 900 who voted Conservative in 2019, still has Labour on course to rebuild much of the Red Wall, with 34 per cent of those Tory voters set to switch. As the dawn breaks on Rishi Sunak’s big day at the Conservative conference tomorrow, his challenge remains beyond daunting.

But in a Scottish context, the poll only matters for the sense of momentum it gives Labour, not because of any insight into voting intentions here. Transfers to the Scottish Conservatives in 2017 were largely lost in 2019 because Boris Johnson was a negative and it was coupled with Ruth Davidson’s departure, and in fact indications are the Scottish Tories could buck the UK trend and win a few more seats, as both the SNP and Labour struggle to connect in the North-East and rural areas, and Conservatives come through the middle. If Douglas Ross was expecting endorsement for his claim the SNP had abandoned everywhere except Dundee and the M8 corridor, he wouldn’t have banked on it coming from ex-SNP Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, who told The Herald the Scottish Government didn’t understand the Highlands.

How far off does 2019 seem, when the queue to hear Boris Johnson’s first conference speech snaked round the block, and a chipper James Cleverley walked the lines to shake hands with hundreds of members who couldn’t get in the hall? Or when Labour was led by a revolutionary socialist who loathed British institutions? But how distant are the days when Nicola Sturgeon led the SNP with an iron rod and dissent was unknown? In Rutherglen and elsewhere, it’s game on.