Winner in 2019 – John Lamont (Conservatives)

IN 2019, the SNP’s former MP Calum Kerr set out on a quest to regain his former constituency of Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, which – in defiance of its status as a Unionist bastion – he had held between 2015-17.

To some it seemed like mission impossible, and indeed he ultimately failed, but it was a glorious failure. His vote share not only increased by six percentage points from 2017, but it even exceeded the 37% he took when he actually won the seat in 2015 at the peak of Nicola Sturgeon’s powers.

Few of his fellow SNP candidates in 2019 could make a similar claim.

In a sense this leaves a golden legacy to Kerr’s successor as the local SNP candidate, David Wilson, who has never stood for election before and is making a virtue of that fact by arguing that voters are longing for an alternative to career politicians.

But Wilson will start a daunting 10 points behind the sitting Conservative MP John Lamont despite Kerr’s efforts.

To have a realistic chance of winning, he’ll need help from a split Unionist vote, but the good news is that’s possible.

The most important fact about Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk is that it’s a constituency where opposition to Scottish independence has been constant, but where support for the Conservatives has come and gone like the changes of the seasons.

The rock-solid Unionism of the area can be partly explained by demographic factors that also apply in similar rural Tory seats much further north, but there’s no point ignoring the elephant in the room.

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Lamont’s constituency covers the vast majority of the Scotland/England border, much of it running along the route of the River Tweed.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that local voters are more susceptible to scare stories about Iron Curtain-style border checkpoints.

But it may simply be that, as the former LibDem MSP Jeremy Purvis used to delight in telling the SNP, some people simply identify more strongly with their cross-border home region, extending to parts of Northumberland, than they do with Scotland itself.

Nevertheless, the results of the 2014 referendum suggest that if you asked random people in the Scottish Borders whether they think Scotland should be independent, as many as one in three would answer “yes”.

That poses a problem to Purvis’s argument, and it may pose an even bigger problem to Lamont (below) in this election, because under the first-past-the-post system it’s entirely possible to win with a vote share of 35% or below.

Although there is a natural ceiling on the support of any pro-independence candidate in the Borders, the success of Kerr suggests that ceiling may be as high as around 40%.

The first task for David Wilson, then, is to get as close to hitting that ceiling as Kerr did. That will be challenging given that the SNP are no longer polling as strongly nationally, but they’ll have the advantage of being able to demonstrate with hard numbers that they are the best option for any local voter whose priority is to kick the Tories out.

The SNP start only 5148 votes behind the Tories in the constituency, while the LibDems and Labour both start with much larger deficits of more than 20,000 votes.

If the SNP can rally enough of the anti-Tory and pro-independence vote to stay in the mid-to-high 30s, they’ll then need Lamont’s vote to drop back from the 48% he recorded in 2019.

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Lamont himself knows that’s likely, which is why he is trying to paint Wilson as the nationalist bogey-man that voters need to unite behind the Tories to stop.

But this is a part of Scotland that rejected the Conservatives in every General Election between October 1974 and 2015, mostly by electing Liberal or LibDem MPs.

With the unpopularity of Rishi Sunak’s government, the time is now probably ripe for a resurgence of the non-Tory Unionist vote in the Borders, thus dividing Unionist support in a way that could bring the SNP into contention.

The SNP are not the favourites in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, but it’s just possible they could pull off a spectacular gain that would help to offset their losses elsewhere.