THE council elections will be “make or break” for Douglas Ross and Anas Sarwar as their parties battle it out for second place, a polling expert has predicted.

One of the major contests when Scottish voters go to the polls next month is expected to be the race for second place between the Tories and Labour.

In 2017, the Conservatives made gains to overtake Labour under the leadership of Ruth Davidson – although both parties trailed well behind the SNP.

But with warnings that Conservatives will “reap the whirlwind” of the Downing Street lockdown parties, whether Ross can maintain that position remains one of the big unknowns.

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Speaking at an online event held by the Local Government Information Unit last week, Allan Faulds, of independent election monitoring website Ballot Box Scotland, said one major focus would be the performance of the SNP, with their prospects looking “mixed”.

“Most polling looks good – they appear to have recovered from a record low in 2017, which was a bad year overall, so they could be heading for a record result,” he said.

“On the other hand their regional result was only just over 40% last year, their polling there is now in the mid-30s.”

Faulds said the other big question was which party was going to come second place.

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“Obviously the Conservatives took that position in 2017 and displaced Labour,” he said. “That was a real peak in their support and they haven’t been at that peak since.

“So they are always likely to lose some seats in some places this year.

“You add in the effect of the lockdown parties, all of those revelations – that is taking support down and that could have much more substantial losses coming up.”

Faulds said Labour would be the party which would benefit from disillusioned Tory voters – which could result in it coming in second place.

“That would be a big boost for Anas Sarwar and of course the constitution is key here,” he added.

“Whoever comes second gets to most credibly claim that only we can stop the SNP and defend the Union.

“This could make one leader’s career and break the other’s.”

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But Faulds also criticised Sarwar for ruling out coalitions with the SNP or Tories as “quite daft”.

He said the party was in a “catch-22” as it faces criticism from the Tories if it teams up with the SNP, and criticism from the SNP if alliances are formed with the Tories.

“You can see perhaps why they don’t want to go for any coalition, but we use proportional representation,” he said.

“Ruling out coalitions is basically pretending proportional representation doesn’t exist and really seems quite daft.

“Cross-party co-operation in Scotland isn’t optional, it is essential.”

He added: “Does it pay electoral dividends to be seen to be standing up to again, parties that you are saying are the most to blame for a decade of funding and service cuts?

“Or is that seen as abdicating responsibility and missing out on opportunities to exercise power and deliver positive change?

“It is a really big gamble.”

Last week Nicola Sturgeon urged Scots to ensure the Tories “feel the consequences” of partygate in May’s council elections.

She said she had encountered a “depth of anger” during the campaign over fines levied against Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is “refusing to face any consequences for his own conduct”.

However Scottish Tory leader Ross – who backtracked on his call for Johnson to resign over the issue – claimed it will not negatively impact his party next month, saying he is “very optimistic”.

He said there is “no doubt that national issues do come up” with voters, but he claimed they are more concerned with local priorities such as potholes and education standards.

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But yesterday former Conservative minister Steve Baker predicted the partygate affair will hurt the Tories at the local elections, with his constituents expressing “fury” at reports of lockdown breaches in Downing Street.

The MP for Wycombe turned on the Prime Minister in the Commons last week, saying the Conservative Party leader should have realised the “gig’s up” after the Metropolitan Police concluded he had breached his own coronavirus rules.

He told the Daily Telegraph: “People lived under barbaric rules. They were told that if they deviated one iota from the law they would kill people. And they suffered for it.

“Meanwhile in No 10, where they should have been obeying both the letter and spirit of the rules, clearly they breached both.”

He added: “It’s been a disaster and I fear we will reap the whirlwind on polling day.”