Winner in 2019: Philippa Whitford (SNP)

THE retirement of any hugely liked and respected MP is a potentially tricky moment for the party defending the constituency at the subsequent general election.

So as Philippa Whitford departs the stage in Central Ayrshire after nine years as the local parliamentarian, it’s a considerable consolation to the SNP that – on paper at least – their leading challengers in the seat are the Conservatives, who are struggling badly in the opinion polls.

In spite of Whitford’s popularity, the Tories came within just over 1000 votes of ousting her in the 2017 general election, as a result of the Ruth Davidson surge.

And even when Whitford established a more comfortable majority in 2019, the Tories’ vote share further increased to a healthy 35%, a full 10 points higher than their Scotland-wide support.

That strength can be mostly attributed to parts of the constituency that used to be in the old Ayr seat, more specifically the coastal towns of Prestwick and Troon, and the inland conservation village of Symington.

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Those communities had been fully accustomed to being represented in the House of Commons by a Conservative MP until Tony Blair’s Labour landslide of 1997.

The rest of Central Ayrshire, with a less affluent population centred particularly in the new town of Irvine, was until 2005 part of the old Cunninghame South seat, in which the Labour majorities had always been enormous and the Tories had been stuck in third place from 1992 onwards.

That constituency still exists at Scottish Parliament level, and although it is now SNP-held and the Tories’ fortunes have improved there, Labour remained one of the two most popular parties in the 2021 Holyrood election.

And that’s the real problem for Annie McIndoe, who has replaced Whitford as the SNP candidate in Central Ayrshire.

When Whitford was first elected in 2015, she displaced a long-standing Labour MP, not a Conservative.

The risk now is that at least some former Labour heartland voters in a place like Irvine could be reverting to their former loyalties, which might bring Labour back into contention for the seat, even though they start from a distant third place and would have to overcome a mammoth deficit of almost 15,000 votes.

The constituency-level projections from polling companies suggest in some cases that Labour may be getting dangerously close to pulling off the feat. YouGov actually have Labour slightly ahead of the SNP in Central Ayrshire by 35% to 31%, although the margin of error is wide enough that the seat is rated as a “toss-up”.

As in many other constituencies, much will depend on the persuasiveness of the competing voices whispering in the ears of any voters who are open to making a tactical choice.

Traditional Conservative voters in places like Prestwick will be urged to lend their votes to Labour in a push to defeat the SNP, but Labour may be confronted with a degree of incredulity when making that pitch given that the Tories had two-and-a-half times as many votes as Labour in the constituency last time around.

The Tories will pray that fact in aid when trying to shore up their own support among anti-independence voters. Similarly, the SNP may be able to make use of the Tories’ good local results in 2019 and 2017 to suggest to Labour-curious voters that a vote for any party other than the SNP risks letting the Tories in.

But as things stand, the task before Annie McIndoe and the SNP is a simple one. If they take more votes than Labour, they’ll almost certainly retain the seat.