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The Telegraph
The Telegraph
8 Apr 2023

The leader of the Scottish Conservatives has said supporters should vote for Labour at the next election to oust the SNP, prompting fury in the Tory party’s London headquarters. 

Douglas Ross told The Telegraph that Tory voters in Scotland should “do what is best for the country” and support “the strongest candidate to beat the SNP” in their constituency, even if it means electing a Labour MP.

But a Tory spokesman in London hit back, saying the tactical voting plan was “emphatically not the view of the Conservative Party” and that Scots should support the Tories “wherever they are standing”.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Mr Ross said voters’ top priorities should be removing SNP MPs and preventing another independence referendum, above the success of his own party.

He urged Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, as well as Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, to “look a bit beyond their own narrow party agenda” to keep the United Kingdom together.

It comes as the SNP faces its “biggest and most challenging crisis” in 50 years after Peter Murrell, husband of Nicola Sturgeon, the former first minister, was arrested in connection with an investigation into the party’s finances. 

He was later released, but Mike Russell, the party’s president, admitted that Scottish independence cannot be “secured right now” amid the ongoing police investigation. BByq8iifJOA

In an interview for The Telegraph’s documentary on the future of Scotland, Mr Ross said Tory voters should consider changing their ballot to hurt the nationalists.

“I will always encourage Scottish Conservative voters to vote Scottish Conservative,” he said. “But I think generally the public can see, and they want the parties to accept, that where there is the strongest candidate to beat the SNP, you get behind that candidate.”

He said the SNP crisis presented an “opportunity” for Unionist parties to win back seats, adding: “If parties maybe look a bit beyond their own narrow party agenda to what's best for the country … what would be best is if we see this grip that the SNP has on Scotland at the moment loosened, and we see a change coming”.

A Tory party spokesman said: “This is emphatically not the view of the Conservative Party. We want people to vote for Conservative candidates wherever they are standing as that’s the best way to keep Labour and the SNP out.”

Critics on the Tory benches at Westminster argue that electing more Labour MPs is a worse outcome than maintaining the SNP’s hold on 48 of the 59 Scottish Westminster constituencies.

One senior Conservative MP said: “The problem is that electoral pacts with Labour don’t work. It’s always a one-way street.”

But another Tory source said the plan could prevent a confidence and supply deal between Sir Keir and the SNP. Such a deal could result in a second independence referendum if the SNP demands a vote in exchange for its support of Labour.

“Either way Starmer goes into Number 10, but on one he goes in with a small majority and on the other one he goes in with the SNP propping him up and demanding a referendum,” said the source. “I know which I prefer. As long as it’s reciprocated, it’s not crazy.”

Sir Keir has ruled out a coalition deal with the SNP “under any circumstances” as he seeks to avoid claims that he would be “in the pocket” of the party and rely on its MPs to pass legislation.

One source close to discussions said Mr Ross was “flying a kite to put in people’s mind the idea of tactical voting” but “won’t have spent much time talking to him [Mr Sunak] about it”.

The plan would mean Conservatives voting for Labour candidates in the “central belt” in the south of Scotland, and Labour supporters voting Conservative in rural areas where they are marginal with the SNP.

Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, also rejected any tactical voting pact with the Conservatives and insisted his party would campaign to win in every seat.

“This sounds like the Scottish Conservatives are accepting they're going to lose the next general election,” he said in the same documentary, adding: “I’m ok with that.”

The split on election strategy on either side of the Scottish border comes just weeks before the local elections, in which Mr Sunak is expected to preside over significant Conservative losses.

Insiders fear the results could damage the perception the Prime Minister is “turning the boat” of public opinion and repairing the Conservative Party’s brand after a year of turmoil.

Opinion polls show that while the SNP’s popularity has declined since a major row over transgender rights and Ms Sturgeon’s resignation, it is likely to be Labour rather than the Conservatives that pick up the majority of seats the party loses at the next election.