Winner in 2019 – Jamie Stone (Liberal Democrats)

NO party that wins 81% of the available seats in a General Election is going to come away feeling remotely disappointed.

But nevertheless there were a good few hours during election night in 2019 when the SNP were projected to do even better and to come away with more than 50 seats, just as they had done in 2015.

That hope was thwarted due to several tight seats breaking against them towards the end of the night, and perhaps the most frustrating of those was the mainland’s most northerly constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.

Defeating the sitting Liberal Democrat MP Jamie Stone had seemed like a tall order prior to polling day, given that Unionist tactical voters are typically assumed to be drawn like a magnet to any LibDem incumbent.

But the SNP came within an agonising margin of just 0.6%, or 204 votes, of pulling off the victory.

The most irritating part of that narrow failure was that it somewhat tarnished the electoral map of Scotland due to the geographic vastness of the constituency, with a substantial intrusion of Liberal Democrat orange into a mainland that was otherwise painted mostly in SNP yellow.

It may or may not be a consolation to SNP supporters to learn that if the 2019 election had been fought on the new boundaries that are being introduced this year, their party would have defeated Stone, and it wouldn’t even have been particularly close – the margin would have been almost eight percentage points.

The reason is the boundary revision is not minor, with the constituency’s unchanged name belying the fact that it is essentially merging with one-half of Ian Blackford’s Ross, Skye and Lochaber seat.

Although that seat was held until 2015 by the much-respected former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, it has been totally dominated in the last three elections by Blackford and the SNP, who took almost twice as many votes as the Lib Dems in 2019. That entirely accounts for the middling notional SNP majority in the newly merged constituency.

All of this could cause some confusion during the election results programmes, because if the Lib Dems win the enlarged seat, as they are probably favourites to do, the graphic on screen will say “LibDem gain from the SNP”, even though Stone was actually the winner in both 2019 and 2017.

However, it would be wrong to assume that Lib Dem representation is regarded as the norm in the area. In fact, local voters are by now well used to electing SNP parliamentarians.

Prior to Stone’s 2017 win, Paul Monaghan had been the SNP MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross for two years, and perhaps even more significantly, the equivalent constituency in the Scottish Parliament has been held by three different SNP MSPs since 2011 – Rob Gibson, Gail Ross, and the present incumbent Maree Todd.

Intriguingly, the SNP vote share on the party list ballot in the 2021 Holyrood election was only five points lower within the boundaries of the constituency than Todd achieved in the personal ballot.

By contrast, the local Lib Dem vote was a massive 15 points lower in the party list ballot. That implies Lib Dem candidates in the area are receiving a lot of negative anti-SNP tactical votes, while SNP voters are mostly voting positively for a first-choice party they actually believe in.

The potential therefore exists for the SNP to power past Stone’s more tactical coalition of support if they can make an inspiring enough offer to their natural sympathisers.

This year, the offer comes in the form of the new SNP standard-bearer Lucy Beattie, generally regarded as a high-quality candidate with a compelling back-story. She took over her family’s farm at the age of 21 after the death of both of her parents, and has recounted how her fury at a Jeremy Vine phone-in motivated her to stand for parliament – something many independence supporters can effortlessly relate to.

Beattie faces at least a small mountain to climb against Stone, but in a part of the world where the personal vote counts for something, she may be well-placed to take on the challenge.