Battleground Stirling: Tories fighting to hold off SNP threat in ultra-marginal

Stirling Tory HQ is oddly hushed for the middle of a General Election campaign.

All eyes are on Sky News and most hands clamped around steaming mugs of tea. Outside a biting smirr is building to a downpour. The TV commands the room because of who is on it: Nigel Farage. He is announcing that his Brexit Party will stand in none of the seats won by the Conservatives in 2017.

A dozen volunteers, ranging from fresh-faced students to seasoned veterans, drink in the news with their Tetley. Here, where pro-Brexit incumbent Stephen Kerr is clinging on by a majority of 148, the development is more than welcome.

The Stirling Conservative and Unionist Association occupies the ground floor of a sandstone terrace on the city’s Gladstone Place, the only decent showing for Liberalism in the whole constituency. (The Lib Dems lost their deposit last time.)

Ten minutes north lies Castle Hill and the royal fortress that Bonnie Prince Charlie tried but failed to conquer in 1746. Kerr’s more fragile defences face a battering from a young-ish pretender in the form of Alyn Smith, who hopes to reclaim Stirling for the SNP on December 12.

On the face of it, Smith should be measuring up the drapes for his Commons office. Stirling voted 68 per cent Remain and Smith is Monsieur Ecosse, Scotland’s Remainer-in-Chief. Kerr, however, is putting up a fight and is the picture of determination, standing between the office’s portraits of Boris Johnson and Margaret Thatcher.

Like his political pin-ups, Kerr’s politics are complicated. A Leaver and a traditionalist, he spends most of his time enthusing about connectivity, digital and otherwise. He sees 5G and fibre optic as key to Stirling’s future prosperity and better public transport essential for fighting climate change.

‘I’d like to see the buses re-regulated, both to improve the service and reduce emissions,’ he says. Coming from someone seen as a Right-winger, this raises an eyebrow. ‘I know,’ he confesses. ‘I’m a red under the bed. Well, on top of the bed. I’m trying to jump up and down and shout about it.’

A ten-minute drive later and we are in Torbrex, an historic village once associated with the weaving industry and now a modestly middle class enclave. Previously a Tory-Labour bellwether, the SNP has made inroads and each party boasts a councillor in the Stirling East ward. For Kerr to stand a chance of being returned to Westminster, Torbrex is a must-win.

Lively showers do not deter Kerr and a dozen volunteers, who huddle around a car boot and emerge in cornflower-blue branded jackets, looking like an improbable delegation of UN peacekeepers. ‘We’re peace-bringers,’ Kerr strains, as he and his helpers begin fanning out and knocking doors. ‘We bring peace from any more referendums.’

Groan. Since he mentions it, though, how is Brexit — and his own outspoken Brexiteerism — going down in a constituency where Leave failed to command as much as a third of the vote? Kerr avers that the constituency divides into two main groups — those who support Brexit (16,000 Leave votes were cast in Stirling) and opponents who accept the result and just want it over with — but admits there is also a core who have not made their peace with it.

What has helped with Brexit sceptics, he says, is the fact Johnson defied expectations and got a new agreement with Brussels. ‘They won’t sign up to a fan club for Boris but they give him respect for getting a deal,’ he relays.

Up to a point. Kerr knocks at the door of Mary and Eugene Toal and there, on the steps overlooking their immaculately manicured garden, he gives them chapter and verse of the Kerr gospel: Get Brexit done, get Scexit in the bin, and get back to what Kerr wistfully calls ‘normal politics’. Mrs Toll seems keen on this message, though adds that she would also like to see a return to traditional moral values. Kerr scribbles a ‘C’ on a sheet of paper.

Mr Toal in concerned about ethical standards in public life too, but this leads him in a different direction. ‘Boris is the problem,’ he says, bluntly. ‘I don’t trust him. I don’t think he has a clue about what’s going on in Scotland.’ Kerr argues that the Prime Minister is very sensitive to matters Scottish and, besides, he rather than Johnson is on the ballot in Stirling. Mr Toal seems not quite convinced nor wholly hostile. Like most voters, he feels let down by politicians and wants to see more honesty from them.

Twenty minutes later — his campaign aides repeatedly scold Kerr for his long doorstep natters — we are walking back down the drive. ‘I’ll put Eugene down as a U but he might even be a P,’ Kerr remarks. ‘We’ll be back in contact to try to turn him into a C.’

It’s come to a pretty pass when a Tory MP has a firmer grasp of all the latest acronyms than you. Before I can request a translation of this curious code, he leans over: ‘Boris told me last week he was planning to come up to Scotland, before adding: “Unless you think that would be a bad idea”.’

So he’s unpopular among Stirling voters? Some, Kerr concedes, but others appreciate his hectic, devil-may-care style. He is keen to frame the election around another divisive political character. On the doorstep he never refers to Alyn Smith but to ‘Nicola Sturgeon’s candidate’, appreciating the power of the First Minister’s mere name to invoke the red mist in even the most composed voter. It works time and again. There is an observable narrowing of the eyes at mention of The S Word.

Invariably, Kerr eggs this on by adding: ‘What do you think of Nicola Sturgeon going on an on about a second independence referendum? Don’t you think it’s a waste of time?’

Most voters agree, though one woman chirps: ‘Actually, I don’t mind Nicola. I like the way she speaks.’ Still, even she won’t commit either way on independence. There is little appetite for Brexit here but almost none for Scexit.

Irene Torrance, who usually votes Conservative, plans to do so again. ‘I’m not concerned about a second independence referendum because I don’t think she’ll get one.’ Campaigners from all parties can attest to the frequency with which Nicola Sturgeon’s pronouns (and some decidedly ‘anti’ nouns) come up on the doorstep. Mrs Torrance laments the division that constitutional politics has brought. ‘It’s sad what’s become of our country.’

Then, she adds: ‘It’s very close here—‘

Kerr jumps in. ‘Yes, it is. Every single Unionist vote is going to matter.’

‘No, there’s something about the SNP man,’ she reassures Kerr. ‘He looks like a double-glazing salesman.’

Alyn Smith is nothing quite so reputable. He is actually a lawyer and SNP MEP, though Kerr prefers ‘Edinburgh lawyer’ and likes to point out that Smith is keeping his Brussels gig while standing to represent Stirling. All good knockabout stuff but, even if Smith is ‘Nicola Sturgeon’s candidate’, he is undoubtedly a problem for Kerr.

An SNP moderate with impeccable Remain credentials, he looks and sounds like the kind of Nationalist Brexit-fatigued Tories could vote for. Kerr grasps the threat but for him it comes back to the same immovable fact: a vote for Alyn Smith is a vote for another referendum on Scexit.

One of Kerr’s canvassers interrupts to ask about the voter he just spoke to. ‘Do I put him down as a P or a U?’

This again. Kerr happily divulges this enigma code of campaigning: the letters record each household’s likely voting intentions. Kerr zips through the consonants and vowels at a speed that would impress Countdown’s Rachel Riley. ‘C’, for confirmed, means they’re certain to vote Tory. ‘P’ is a possible Conservative ballot while ‘U’ denotes an Undecided elector.

Just as valuable is documenting the level of support for rival parties. ‘S’, somewhat confusingly, doesn’t stand for SNP but Socialist — i.e. Labour; SNP voters are recorded with ‘N’ (Nationalist) while ‘L’ is reserved for Liberal Democrats. ‘W’ is for those who simply won’t vote. After six elections and two referendums in five years, who can blame them?

Peering at the volunteer’s clipboard, Kerr asks: ‘Who’s he wavering between?’

‘Us and the SNP,’ the door-knocker replies.

‘For or against Indyref2?’

‘Against.’

With that Kerr bounds round the corner out of view, towards the unsuspecting elector’s house. When we catch up to him, he’s at the side door and chatting with the owner as if he’s known him for years. Suddenly, they disappear inside, the Tory hopeful re-emerging a few minutes later.

‘He’s redoing his kitchen. Took me in and showed me how it was going. They’re wanting to do more renovations after that.’

Then, with barely a pause for breath: ‘Oh, and he’s a C now.’

After a chat about kitchen renovations? ‘The man’s renovating his house,’ Kerr explains matter-of-factly. ‘He’s got enough on without another referendum getting in the way.’

There is a near missionary zeal to Kerr’s campaigning. ‘I suppose I’m something of a universal salvationist,’ quips this member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

‘You won’t stop till you’ve converted everyone to the Tories?’ I venture.

‘That’s it,’ he chuckles, before adding: ‘Stirling is going to be won vote by vote.’

Not everyone is willing to accept the Tory as their personal saviour. One irate woman who voted for him in 2017 gave Kerr what-for for voting to support a Brexit deal. Kerr pointed out that his 2017 manifesto pledged to do just that, but his constituent was having none of it.

There followed a robust exchange — on both sides — that took in prorogation, the ethics of ‘lying to the Queen’, and ‘choosing Boris Johnson over us’. The verbal sparring came to a crescendo when the woman blurted: ‘I’ve joined the Liberal Democrats’. Kerr’s evangelising ceased instantly and he bid her a good day. Some souls can’t be saved after all.

The SNP expects Stirling to fall. That’s why Nicola Sturgeon chose it as her first campaign stop of the election. On paper, her candidate should win it handily but here on the streets there are signs of Tory strength.

Stephen Kerr sums up the conflict thus: ‘In Stirling, there is the crystalisation of a choice between having a local Conservative and Unionist Member of Parliament who works for Stirling, puts Stirling first, and an SNP MP who will just be another tub-thumper for independence and who will take and follow instructions from Nicola Sturgeon. That’s exactly what they do, you know… She sends down a text message and they have to vote [that way].’

Can he win? ‘Oh yes. I can win and I’m going to win. I’m hoping that people know the kind of person I am and will vote for me for that reason… There’s no surge to the SNP, Labour voters are generously lending me their vote in order to defeat the SNP because they’ve largely lost faith in their own party and because locally they know that I’m the main challenger.

‘I think I am going to win, I just don’t know by how much. I’d like to have a bigger majority than 148.’

Then, with a note of caution: ‘We’re four weeks out and there’s a long way to go. I’ve got a lot of doorstep conversations to have.’

Stirling, not for the first time in its history, is a fierce and unforgiving battleground.

*****

An edited version of this piece was published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk. Photo © Graham Hogg (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Published by stephenjdaisley

Political journalist and commentator.

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