The National:

Winner in 2016: John Scott (Conservative)

AYR enjoys the dubious distinction of having been the first constituency to be represented at Scottish Parliament level by a Tory MSP, although there was an element of chance involved in that.

The inaugural Holyrood election in 1999 had followed a similar pattern to the Westminster General Election two years earlier, with the Tories failing to trouble the scorer in the constituencies – but they had a remarkably near miss in Ayr, where their former local MP Phil Gallie fell short by just 25 votes.

Within a few months, the successful Labour candidate, Ian Welsh, infuriated his party by deciding that life as a backbencher wasn’t to his taste, causing a needless by-election in March 2000 in an ultra-vulnerable seat.

The new Tory candidate, John Scott, seized the opportunity with both hands, although the real surprise package were the SNP, who jumped into second place in a traditional Tory-Labour battleground.

Scott has been the Tory MSP for Ayr ever since. That shouldn’t be underestimated as an achievement, because it’s by no means clear that the Tories have been the constituency’s natural lead party over the last two decades.

For example, Labour held the equivalent seat in the 2001 UK General Election, and the successor Westminster constituency of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock has only been in Tory hands for two years since it was created in 2005.

It was won by Labour on the first two occasions, and was taken by the SNP in both 2015 and 2019.

More distant history also suggests that the Tories can be seriously threatened in Ayr even when they’re performing adequately throughout Scotland. In 1987, Margaret Thatcher’s Defence Secretary (and former long-term Scottish secretary) George Younger only barely held off a Labour challenge in the Westminster seat, in a General Election that saw the Tories take 24% of the Scotland-wide vote – pretty good by modern standards, although admittedly it was considered a cataclysm at the time.

By a quirk of fate, the fourth-placed SNP candidate that year was none other than Colin Weir, who in later life donated huge sums of money to the Yes campaign in the 2014 independence referendum, after he and his wife Christine won the EuroMillions jackpot.

There was another close shave in 1992, with Gallie only holding the seat for the Tories by 85 votes – despite his party making a modest recovery to 26% of the Scottish vote.

So what can explain Scott’s unbroken run of success in the Holyrood seat, which has spanned periods in which the Tories’ national vote was consistently well below 20%? It may be partly a personal vote, although another reason is that in the early years of devolution, Labour tended to poll less well in Holyrood elections than in Westminster elections, with the SNP as the main beneficiary.

That created a more even split in the anti-Tory vote in Ayr, allowing Scott to hold off Labour with greater ease. More recently, the Labour vote has collapsed and the SNP have emerged as the main challengers, coming agonisingly close to outright victory in both 2011 and 2016. The SNP candidate this year is local councillor Siobhian Brown, and she would require a tiny swing of just 1% to gain the seat.

Some recent opinion polls, but by no means all, have suggested there could be national movement from Tory to SNP in excess of 1%. So Ayr will certainly be worth keeping an eye on when the results come in, but given John Scott’s track record of defying the odds, nothing can be taken for granted.