THE Scottish Tory electoral machine has become rather well oiled over the last half decade-or-so. The party’s result in the Scottish Parliament elections in May – where it retained its 31 seats in Holyrood – exceeded the expectations of many observers, but would not have come as much of a surprise to those with their hands on the wheel.

The party has been running what amounts to the same campaign since the previous Holyrood election in 2016, including at the 2017 and 2019 Westminster elections in between. Without being overly disparaging, at each of these four elections we have had to endure a single-issue campaign based on angry opposition to a second independence referendum.

The Tories know their audience. One-in-four Scots are animated and irritated in their opposition to indyref 2. Most of them (perhaps two-thirds) are loyal Tories, but the rest are relative newcomers to ticking the blue box, and do so in the main because of the party’s unionism.

These include many Labour voters, attracted by an absolutist stance on the constitutional question, and therefore frustrated at their own party’s inability to take one, owing to the presence of a substantial minority of potential Yes voters in their midst.

This has served the Tories well. If you define your political self by opposition to independence, and if you therefore vote primarily on the basis of constitutionalism rather than ideology, there is nowhere else to go.

As long as a second independence referendum is on the table, particularly with the Tories in government in Westminster, the Scottish limb of the party can be fairly certain of turning out that roughly one-in-four voters.

But to what end? The Tories could continue to come second almost indefinitely, and indeed they might, each time, prevent an SNP majority, but what is the point in that? Is that all the 31 Tory MSPs are there for? Is the limit of their ambition to contain the SNP to a landslide not quite large enough to command an outright majority?

Or do they have ambitions akin to the primary opposition party in every other democracy in the world: winning?

Immediately after the election in May, in some cases on the night itself, a smattering of Tory MSPs appeared to acknowledge this fundamental question. Mostly in private, but in a couple of cases in public, MSPs declared job done on indyref 2 (which is obviously highly debatable), and said it was time to reach higher, create some space between the Tories and the SNP in key policy areas, and therefore attract more, new voters.

This was interesting to me, as an observer, because it would signal the first time since the leadership of David McLetchie, more than 15 years ago, that the Tories would create a serious, consistent, coherent policy platform covering all the key responsibilities of government.

The first six months of this new Parliament, alas, did not deliver as advertised. But over the last few weeks, there has been a clear shift. At its most superficial, Tory leader Douglas Ross’s public demeanour has changed. At First Minister’s Questions, for instance, he has morphed from being angry to calm; from belligerent to conciliatory; from adversarial to constructive.

This works well for him, and actually brings his public persona far more in line with how he is in private – fundamentally a decent, normal guy trying to do a job.

Together with this tonal change, policy appears to be on the agenda. The questions, though, remain how far will it go, and how long will it last?

The answer to the first of those questions should be that there is no limit to how far it should go. For the first time in what has been a largely competent period of government since 2007, the SNP is under some significant pressure from the media, the opposition and indeed from within.

For instance, coronavirus has exposed the substantial cracks in the NHS. It is a model which is unsuitable for modern demographics, and misaligned with public expectation. The French expression ‘pensée unique’ finds no more relevant home than in our debate about the future of the NHS.

Tories have always been terrified of entering into a debate about the NHS, under the false impression that they somehow have something to lose. They don’t – nobody votes for the Tories on the strength of their NHS policy. But they might. And with a GP in charge of the health brief, a meaningful alternative to save the concept of taxpayer-funded health care might be perfectly timed, and might go down rather well with voters.

The same could be said for schools. A parent population which, having had a light shone on the education system’s performance during the home schooling process, has grown increasingly uneasy, may be ripe to listen to a credible alternative.

There is even an opportunity to enhance their credentials in the frenetic net zero debate. With the SNP under increasing pressure from the Greens to downplay the concept of transition in favour of activist-pleasing instant action, a gap may form for a strong voice of a job-saving transition to net zero, pleasing both centrist environmentalists and concerned industries.

Nonetheless, even if they do move into this territory, we rub up against the second question – how long will it last? In other words, in two years time, when a Westminster election rolls around and the SNP asks voters to send a message to Boris Johnson on Scotland’s right to choose, will the Tories be able to resist beating the old drum?

I must say, I have my doubts. I have my doubts that any expansion of the Scottish Tories’ focus into policy areas will stand the test of an election campaign.

I have other doubts. I doubt that new policy platforms alone will be enough to overturn the gulf to the SNP, still polling double the return for the Tories. I doubt that the Scottish Tories, under any circumstances, could ever command more than 30 per cent, because of its ties to the UK-wide Tory party.

However, one thing I do not doubt is that it is worth a go. It displeases me to say this, but there is little to admire about our politics in Scotland. So, positive anything is better than negative nothing.

Andy Maciver is director of Message Matters