by Colin Campbell
LUCKY recipients of Ian Blackford’s campaign leaflet in the Ross, Lochaber and Skye constituency will have noticed that it contains no fewer than 11 photographs of him. Modesty presumably prevented him from giving himself the full photogenic pictorial spread he felt he no doubt deserved. In fact, one more photo and people would have been able to make a 2020 calendar out of them. An Ian Blackford picture calendar hanging in your front living room? What a Christmas gift.
By contrast, Drew Hendry’s pamphlet in Inverness features only four pictures of him, a reasonable number which fits in well with the SNP candidate’s content and layout.
I’ve received emails from folk in Ross-shire ridiculing Blackford’s Hello magazine over-exposure of himself, and his apparent belief that a blizzard of self-portraits of his puce-faced persona is a way to win votes and influence people.
None of them, incidentally, depicted the “simple 10-acres crofter”, he declares himself to be, working hard tilling the soil. No surprises there.
It adds to the sense that here is a man who has become consumed with his own self-importance and has lost touch with the down-to-earth reality that voters are looking for in a prospective MP, which does not include 11 pictures of him spread indulgently over a campaign leaflet.
Doubts over Blackford, as he tries to regain his SNP seat, have been hugely reinforced by his decision not to take part in hustings events in the constituency, where rival candidates stake out their positions.
I’ve been covering these events for decades and I can’t ever recall a candidate taking such a stance. His opponents have now threatened to “empty chair” him if he doesn’t have the good grace to show up.
There are two credible reasons for him avoiding these traditional debates, with one due to be held in the county town of Dingwall on December 5.
The first is that he’s spent too much time watching TV re-runs of his weekly appearances at PMQ’s at Westminster, and a humble debate in front of the little people – ie the voters – is now beneath him.
The other is that he is running scared of the fact that the other candidates would forcefully take him on and he would face a difficult time in their company, and that his habitual resort to uninterrupted, blustering tirades wouldn’t get him through these events.
The explanation given for Blackford’s extraordinary snub to the local electorate was that his “campaign was organised and he was tied up the whole time”. And that he “didn’t have any spare time at all”.
However, he is taking part on a TV debate next Tuesday. So he can find the time to appear in front of his beloved TV cameras but not for meetings involving the people of Dingwall and elsewhere.
This has – understandably – gone down terribly badly in his constituency. Before he can return to parade on the national stage he first of all has a local election to win. He’s had more than his fair share of the TV limelight in recent years, and now it’s time – just for two or three weeks – to get down to the nitty-gritty of engaging with people at local voter level.
But he doesn’t seem to get it. The TV limelight comes first every time. This is a man riding for a fall.
There’s an irony here, in that Blackford evokes the same kind of loathing outside the ranks of the SNP which Boris Johnson apparently engenders among the nationalists. Not to put too fine a point on it, he is widely detested, more than Nicola Sturgeon or any other SNP politician.
His weekly tirades at Prime Minister’s Questions as SNP leader at Westminster, bellicose diatribes in which the pompous tone of manufactured grievance and outrage never changes, are a massive turn-off for non-SNP viewers. When Charles Kennedy spoke out on the national stage, very many people felt proud that a Highland MP had risen to such a level. Blackford is seen by many as a local and national embarrassment.
And then there’s the other Kennedy factor, which remains potent and toxic. The fact that Blackford’s campaign targeted him viciously at the last election when he was at his lowest ebb. That is neither forgiven nor forgotten by many. It is alien to the traditionally more gentle – and gentlemanly – approach to Highland politics.
Labour and the Conservatives have effectively stepped aside in this election and the message to their supporters is clear and simple: Vote Lib-Dem to get rid of Blackford.
Even in casual conversations, it’s apparent that very many people are aware of the impact of tactical voting in the constituency, an issue which has never come up before.
A friend of mine who lives in Fort William said his parents, dyed-in-the-wool Tory voters, will this time unhesitatingly vote for Craig Harrow for the Liberal Democrats. As will he. And, as he added, in passing, will his boss. I’ve heard the same from folk across Ross-shire, with intensity.
If Blackford and the SNP hoped the tactical voting scheme wouldn’t get off the ground they are clearly mistaken.
A Scottish poll which came out this week found that the “we speak for Scotland” SNP are, at 40 per cent, only 12 points ahead of the Conservatives, on 28 per cent. Far from a Tory wipeout as a consequence of the “Boris factor” it seems their supporters are more energised than ever.
So SNP hopes of disillusioned Conservatives giving this election a pass because of “Boris” now seem redundant. But in Ross, Lochaber and Skye, their energies will not be aimed at electing their own candidate – but in determinedly getting rid of Blackford.
Nicola Sturgeon’s arrogance in openly setting out her terms for supporting Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister – topmost among them, of course, another independence referendum – are also a signal of her taking the voters for granted and overplaying her hand. After the last election, with the SNP losing a third of their MPs, she was temporarily humbled. Now she seems as recklessly presumptuous and cocksure as ever.
The electoral arithmetic is simple. SNP supporters will inevitably turn out in large numbers for Blackford but there aren’t enough of them. He is defending a relatively narrow 5,000 majority and if Tory voters and at least some Labour voters back the Lib Dem candidate he will be beaten, by several thousand votes. In 2017 the Lib Dems were adrift nationally, led by the already forgotten Tim Farron, who took over after the discredited Nick Clegg/Danny Alexander era. These were tough times for the party.
But engaging new leader Jo Swinson has revitalised them.
At this stage the question isn’t – why would rival party supporters vote Lib-Dem. It’s – why wouldn’t they?
Blackford can continue to seek the TV limelight but the time has long gone when that will convert anyone in his constituency to vote for him. His refusal to appear at local hustings events is a sign of arrogance and even contempt for people in his constituency.
After the election his election pamphlets will be scattered around and will still feature 11 pictures of Ian Blackford. Maybe they could indeed be converted into a “Blackford calendar”. But, as he is accorded much more time to spend on his “croft”, the only one hanging it beside the mantelpiece could be himself.