The National:

Winner in 2016: John Swinney (SNP)

PERTHSHIRE North, and its predecessor constituency of North Tayside, has been the setting for one of the longest-running rivalries in Scottish – if not UK – politics.

On each and every occasion since the inaugural Scottish Parliament election of 1999, the top two places have been taken by John Swinney of the SNP and Murdo Fraser of the Conservatives.

However, this hasn’t exactly been a titanic Gladstone v Disraeli style battle for the ages, because Swinney has always been the clear winner. Sometimes the margin of victory has been gargantuan, peaking at 34.5% in the SNP’s landslide year of 2011, and also reaching a very healthy 21.4% in 2007.

But even when Fraser has achieved respectability, he’s never been closer than 10 percentage points behind his opponent, which is odd given that the terrain is traditionally Tory.

The old Westminster seat of North Tayside was first established in 1983, when it was won by Bill Walker of the Tories with a majority of more than 10,000 votes. The SNP were in second place, a legacy from their temporary 1970s breakthrough in two of the predecessor constituencies, but not by all that much. The Liberal-SDP Alliance was only five points behind in third place, and ironically the Alliance candidate was none other than Danus Skene, who three decades later very nearly became the SNP MP for Orkney & Shetland.

Even in 1987, when the Tories lost more than half of their Scottish seats in the backlash against Thatcherism, the SNP didn’t really come close to taking North Tayside, although the silver lining was that they shook off the Alliance to establish themselves as the clear challenger to the Tories for future elections.

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By the time of the 1992 General Election, the political weather seemed to have transformed for the SNP, and nationally they were running at almost double the level of support they had in 1987.

A week before polling day, the party’s deputy leader Jim Sillars confidently predicted that North Tayside would be part of a “triple whammy” of SNP gains from the Tories. If that had proved correct, it would have seen a young John Swinney enter parliament, because he was standing in the constituency for the first time. But the polls famously turned out to have been underestimating the Tories, and Bill Walker was once again comfortably re-elected with only a slightly reduced majority. He was finally ousted by Swinney five years later but that was in the context of the Tories being completely wiped out across Scotland.

In a nutshell, then, this is an area that in pre-devolution days tended to elect a Conservative MP even when the Tories were performing relatively poorly elsewhere in Scotland. That makes Murdo Fraser’s failure to even make a proper fight of the Scottish Parliament seat in 2016, when the party was resurgent nationally under Ruth Davidson, all the more baffling.

Is Fraser just an extraordinarily poor campaigner? Perhaps he simply can’t compete with the personal vote of Swinney? Or a third explanation might be that the Tories’ underlying position in Perthshire has eroded more than in their other former heartlands – of the SNP Westminster seats expected to fall to the Tories in 2017, Perth & North Perthshire was the only one that didn’t.

Conservative support continues to be higher nationally than in the whole period between the mid-1990s and 2015, so they certainly can’t be ruled out in Perthshire North this time. But given their persistent local track record of underperforming, the smart money must be on the SNP’s Deputy First Minister to extend his long stay at Holyrood.