The National:

Winner in 2016: Michael Russell (SNP)

THERE’S probably no greater nightmare scenario for the SNP than seeing a Highland seat they once held being taken by the LibDems, as they are noted for their cockroach-like ability to survive once they become the incumbents. Their MPs are particularly adept at building up strong personal votes in rural areas.

In 1987, it was the Liberal-SDP Alliance (forerunners of the LibDems) who benefited from the anti-Tory tactical push to take the Westminster seat of Argyll and Bute – a massive disappointment for the SNP, who had won the predecessor seat of Argyll twice in the 1970s when the Liberals hadn’t even bothered putting up a candidate.

Predictably, the LibDem MP Ray Michie, who was arguably part of a “soft-nationalist” wing of her party that no longer really exists, proved impossible to budge in subsequent years. The joke used to be that if everyone in Argyll and Bute had voted honestly, the LibDems would always have finished fourth.

Instead they won every time because Labour and SNP supporters voted for them to stop the Tories, and Tory supporters voted for them to stop the SNP and/or Labour. Depressingly, the same logic transferred to the equivalent Holyrood constituency when the Scottish Parliament was set up in 1999 – the LibDems’ George Lyon held off a stiff challenge from SNP candidate Duncan Hamilton (nowadays better known for having acted as a lawyer for Alex Salmond), before seemingly entrenching himself in the 2003 election, which saw the SNP slipping to a poor third.

But just when it appeared that the LibDems would hold the constituency at both Holyrood and Westminster level into perpetuity, the unprecedented national SNP surge in 2007 changed the game.

The pro-business SNP candidate Jim Mather ousted Lyon by a tiny margin of less than 3%. It was a crucial result that helped propel the SNP into government for the first time, but it was also a watershed in local politics because the SNP have held the Holyrood seat continuously ever since.

In 2011, Michael Russell succeeded Mather as the SNP candidate and stormed to a commanding win over the Tories, with the LibDems slumping to third place in the wake of their ill-fated decision to join David Cameron’s government at Westminster the previous year.

By 2016 the LibDems at least had the advantage of being able to put up a well-known candidate once again. Although ironically that was only because a former MP for the Westminster version of the seat was suddenly free after losing his job in the previous year’s SNP landslide. But the only difference Alan Reid’s intervention made was to push the Tories back into third, with Russell retaining a large majority over the LibDems of almost 6000 votes.

Since then, there have been elections to Argyll and Bute Council, which saw the SNP emerge as the largest single party for the first time after breaking the dominance of independent councillors.

There have also been two further elections for the Westminster seat, and the SNP won both times – albeit the 2017 race was far too close for comfort. Crucially, though, the Tories were in clear second place on both occasions, even though Alan Reid was the LibDem candidate.

That raises a question mark over whether Reid, who is standing yet again this year for the Holyrood constituency, will be able to maintain his position from five years ago as the main challenger to the SNP.

Jenni Minto will be the SNP’s standard bearer in May following Russell’s retirement after a remarkable career. If she faces any threat at all, it’s more likely to come from the Tories. But it’s also quite possible that this will turn out to be a comfortable SNP hold. The more competitive race will be between the Tories and LibDems for second place.