Nicola Sturgeon hopes the Brexit crisis will boost the Scottish National party’s chances of a shock Holyrood byelection victory in the Liberal Democrat stronghold of Shetland tomorrow.
Pundits believe the SNP is on the verge of winning the seat, which the Lib Dems have held comfortably since the first Scottish parliament elections in 1999. Tavish Scott, previously a Scottish Lib Dems leader, won in 2016 with 67% of the vote, a majority of 4,865 over the SNP.
The contiguous Westminster seat of Orkney and Shetland has been a Lib Dem constituency since 1950 and is the party’s safest in the UK, but Sturgeon and the SNP have shovelled huge resources into the contest to succeed Scott, who stood down in June to work instead for Scottish Rugby.
An SNP win tomorrow would be cited as clear proof that Scottish voters now favour independence from the rest of the UK after Brexit. Shetland historically has been sceptical about the case for leaving the UK.
Sturgeon has visited Shetland to campaign three times in recent weeks, alongside numerous Holyrood ministers and SNP MPs and MSPs, inviting criticism from her opponents after one visit meant she failed to appear at a government press event disclosing a multibillion-pound public spending deficit in Scotland last year.
The Scottish Tories pointed out Sturgeon had visited Shetland as many times in the last month as she had during her previous five years as first minister. Brydon Goodland, the Tory candidate for Shetland, said: “The SNP only care about Shetland when there are votes to be won.”
The final message to voters from Tom Wills, the SNP’s young candidate, was Brexit-focused. He claimed the SNP was “by some distance the strongest pro-European party in the UK” with 100 parliamentarians at Scottish, UK and European level focused on stopping the UK leaving the EU.
The Lib Dems reject the implication they are softer on Brexit. After all, their European election campaign slogan was “bollocks to Brexit”. But observers on Shetland say the Lib Dem campaign has suffered greatly from the lacklustre performance of its candidate, Beatrice Wishart , while Wills has energised younger voters.
Much hinges on turnout. The Lib Dems hope the island’s broadly conservative voters will treat with cynicism Wills’s claims that the SNP will slash ferry and air fares for islanders, increase housing spending and protect fishing interests.