Winner in 2016: Willie Rennie (Liberal Democrats)

ALTHOUGH constituency and list MSPs have equal status to each other, in practice it’s considered slightly embarrassing for major party leaders to not have their own constituency seats. Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie were therefore both delighted, and perhaps a little surprised, to put an end to that deficiency in the 2016 election, and to do it in defiance of a trend that saw the SNP making net constituency gains. But whereas Davidson partly owed her success in Edinburgh Central to a strategically dubious intervention from a Green candidate, there was no denying that Willie Rennie’s recapture of North-East Fife for the Liberal Democrats was a significant personal accomplishment. His vote increased by 15% – completely out of line with a fractional decrease for his party nationally. A big part of the reason for that was a squeeze on the Conservative vote. Although the Tories’ support only dipped by 2%, that gives a misleading impression, because across Scotland they enjoyed an 8% increase – and could realistically have expected to replicate that in a former heartland area like North-East Fife.

And there was nothing inevitable about anti-SNP voters tactically coalescing behind the LibDems. Remarkably, a year later at the Westminster general election, the SNP managed to hold the equivalent constituency by the legendarily narrow margin of two votes, in spite of the fact that their national vote by then was around 10 percentage points lower. It seems likely that Tory supporters had greater confidence in Rennie’s ability to beat the SNP than they did in a lesser-known LibDem candidate for Westminster.

Now that Rennie is the incumbent MSP, it may be murderously difficult for the SNP to dislodge him, because some of the remaining Tory voters may move across after being given a practical demonstration that he can win. Party leaders also usually enjoy a boost due to their higher profile – Jo Swinson’s epic failure in East Dunbartonshire is the exception that proves the rule, but there’s no indication that voters hold Rennie in similar disdain.

So is it all doom and gloom for the SNP? Not at all. Even 10 years ago, the idea of us pondering the SNP’s chances of winning North-East Fife would have seemed laughable. This affluent locality was previously a LibDem-Tory battleground, with the SNP as also-rans. It’s a considerable achievement for the SNP to have muscled their way into the equation and pushed the Tories out. It’s true that they may have to settle for second place on this occasion – but that could easily change in the future, especially after Rennie eventually steps down as LibDem leader.