This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

One might think Rishi Sunak would have chosen his words a bit more carefully when greeting Conservative campaigners on Friday morning.

“Are you all pumped?” he asked, following the loss of two safe seats with majorities circa 20,000 and the narrow holding of Uxbridge and South Ruislip despite a 6.7% swing to Labour. “Are we all pumped? Well, as you ask Prime Minister…”

A penny for the thoughts then, of Douglas Ross. One assumes the Scottish Conservative leader has a thick skin, given he’s opted to be both a Tory MP and a referee, but what do three results south of the border mean for his party ahead of an expected election next year?

The oft-repeated joke in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum was that Scotland had more giant pandas than Tory MPs, but the Conservatives are currently the largest opposition party at Holyrood and have six MPs in Scotland to just one, Ian Murray, for Labour.

It’s probably fair to say that for Ross’s party, their relative recent success comes down more to questions of constitution than economics. The recent domination by the SNP tallies with the 45% of people who backed a yes vote in the independence referendum, while the Tories have made clear they are staunchly pro-union and always will be – it’s even in the name.

Labour found itself between a rock and a hard place, much as it would later do with Brexit. The party itself backed a no vote in the referendum, but bled many of its traditional voters to the yes side. It could then not risk alienating the pro-union but anti-Tory bloc it had left and suffered electorally as a result. By 2019 Labour was in a similar position nationwide, seeking to appeal to both the pro-Brexit ‘red wall’ and the second referendum crowd in London.

Unspun | Analysis: Are by-elections significant indicators of a political watershed?

That election saw the Conservatives shed MPs in Scotland – to paraphrase Spinal Tap, Boris Johnson’s appeal was always more selective north of the border – but not to Labour. Does the swing to Keir Starmer’s party in the three by-elections signal that things could be changing?

While there’s fluctuation in the polls the overall trend since the turn of the year is clear – the SNP is falling and Labour are rising. A recent survey by Panelbase for the Sunday Times put the two parties neck-and-neck, with the Tories a distant third, and Mr Starmer isn’t ceding anything to Mr Ross on the union.

Labour has made clear it would not grant a Section 30 order for a second referendum on independence, ruled out any deals with the SNP in the event of a hung parliament and Mr Starmer made clear his stance that: “the big challenges that will face us are only going to be met with a strong union going forward, a progressive, forward, modern look to our union”. Frustrated picket lines may observe that there is at least one union the Labour leader will publicly support.

The Herald:

If you’re Douglas Ross and a resurgent Labour start eroding your staunch unionist support base then to where do you turn? Rishi Sunak doesn’t seem particularly interested in speaking to Scotland, especially when traditionally safe seats are seemingly up for grabs, and you wouldn’t want to be standing on the record of the Tory party in their 13 years in power. Stating that this government “got Brexit done” isn’t even a strategy to fall back on given Scotland emphatically rejected leaving the EU and polls consistently show 60% or more in favour of re-joining.

Come next year running the line with a bunch of fuming Scottish football fans at his back might be the least of his problems.

...enjoyed the article? Sign up for free to the Unspun newsletter and receive it directly to your inbox every weekday night at 7pmClick here 👈