The National:

Winner in 2016: Richard Lochhead (SNP)

IF the SNP over-reacted to their losses in the 2017 General Election – which, let’s not forget, provided a far better result for the party than in any Westminster election prior to 2015 – it was probably because they lost constituencies like Moray, which they’d held continuously for decades, including at times when they had as few as three seats.

The concern was that they didn’t have deep roots in the vast majority of the 35 seats they’d retained, and that if heartlands like Moray had gone for good, they could eventually find themselves with fewer seats in the House of Commons than they’d started with before the 2015 surge.

There was also a worry about this year’s Holyrood election, because the Scottish Parliament seat of Moray had been held by the SNP’s Richard Lochhead against the Tory tide in 2016 – but that had begun to look like a very lucky escape which might not be repeated.

In retrospect, those fears look misplaced on two counts. Firstly, the post-indyref political realignment in the former Labour heartlands seems to have been lasting rather than transient, and secondly the Tories haven’t really consolidated their grip on Moray and other similar locations.

Although Moray wasn’t one of the several seats the SNP took back from the Tories in the 2019 UK General Election, the result was practically a coin toss. Douglas Ross’ decisive margin of victory over Angus Robertson in 2017 now looks like an aberration caused by the unusually high national Tory vote share of 29% – which hadn’t been matched or exceeded since 1979.

Nevertheless, Moray still can’t be regarded as a banker seat for the SNP this May in the way that it has been in most previous Holyrood elections. A middling swing of more than 4% would be required for the Conservatives to grab the constituency, which in theory would mean they’d have to close the national gap between themselves and the SNP to 16 percentage points or less. In practice, the experience of the last Westminster election suggests that they wouldn’t even need to get as near as that.

One reason the local terrain may have become more Tory-friendly since 2016 is that the EU referendum occurred a few weeks after the last Holyrood election, and although Moray voted Remain, it had a higher Leave vote than any other local authority area in Scotland.

There’s also, of course, the Douglas Ross factor. With the local Westminster MP having recently become Scottish Tory leader, you’d think there would be a golden opportunity for Ross to capitalise on his own personal vote and the traditional “leader’s bonus” – and yet he isn’t actually standing in the constituency.

That probably suggests either that the Tories expect to fall short in Moray, or that they’re taking a safety-first approach and refusing to allow even the possibility of their leader being embarrassed in what would be perceived as a seat that he should win.

Even if it’s the latter, though, there’s little doubt that the SNP’s chances of holding on will be boosted by facing a lesser-known Tory candidate.

This is a contest that genuinely could go either way, but based on the current polls, and possibly also on a whiff of Brexiteer buyer’s remorse, the SNP should probably be considered marginal favourites.