Winner in 2019: Kirsten Oswald (SNP)

EAST Renfrewshire is sometimes dubbed one of Scotland’s “Home Counties”.

It is a prosperous, at one time traditionally Conservative district at the edge of the country’s largest conurbation with much higher than average numbers of graduates and homeowners.

That specific blend of characteristics left Paul Masterton, the former Tory MP for the area, in a hopelessly paradoxical position as he sought re-election in 2019.

With the his party on course for its biggest UK overall majority since the Thatcher landslide of 1987, defending a constituency that had been Tory-held from 1924-97 should have been a piece of cake.

But Masterton’s problem was that Boris Johnson was fighting the election on a “get Brexit done” pitch, and even the Scottish Tories were not entirely shying away from that message, given that they were battling to retain farming and fishing constituencies in the north-east and the Borders with substantial numbers of Leave voters.

But East Renfrewshire is very much not Banff and Buchan and in 2019 it wasn’t much exercised by North Sea fishing quotas. In fact, although enthusiasm for the EU in Scotland correlates with support for independence, staunchly No voting East Renfrewshire is more pro-European than all but a couple of SNP constituencies.

With 74% of its electors having voted Remain in 2016, it was one of the most anti-Brexit seats in the entire UK. Masterton had little hope of retaining it in the circumstances, however much he had tried to square the circle by resisting a no-deal Brexit in Parliament.

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The SNP’s Kirsten Oswald (below), who had been MP between 2015-17, sailed past the Tories by almost 10 percentage points to regain it.

This year, the inheritor of Masterton’s paradoxical position – albeit arguably a much less self-aware inheritor – is Labour’s Blair McDougall who is pushing the Starmerite “vote for change” message even though his party intends to maintain the Brexit status quo and the incumbent SNP MP wants to rejoin the EU, presumably still in line with the views of the overwhelming majority of the constituency’s voters.

A more personal additional complication is that McDougall was the supremo of the 2014 indyref’s relentlessly negative No campaign, infamously dubbed “Project Fear” by its own insiders.

One of the prominent attack lines was that independence would lead to Scotland leaving the EU, when in fact history now shows that the polar opposite was true.

McDougall may be asked on the East Renfrewshire campaign trail whether he takes ownership of his own grim handiwork.

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And his baggage doesn’t end with Europe. He was Labour’s candidate in East Renfrewshire in 2017 and, true to his Project Fear pedigree, ran a wretched and substance-free campaign.

It boiled down to him lecturing Conservative supporters that they would be effectively voting for Nicola Sturgeon (below) if they voted Tory, because he was supposedly in a “two-horse race” with the SNP’s MP. The result put him third in his two-horse race, with his vote slumping seven percentage points – in the context of an election which saw Labour’s national vote increase due to the Corbyn surge.

And yet McDougall is back this year, telling voters without any apparent sense of irony that they must vote for him because he’s one of only two horses in the race.

So much will have to disappear into the memory hole if East Renfrewshire voters aren’t going to respond to his latest campaign with fits of uncontrollable laughter.

He stands a better chance of avoiding the ignominy of finishing “third out of two” this time, simply because Labour are polling so strongly nationwide. But it still won’t be easy for him – based on the 2019 result, he starts 32 points behind the SNP and 23 behind the Tories, who are putting up the well-known list MSP Sandesh Gulhane.

So there must be a reasonable chance that the Unionist vote will be fairly evenly divided, offering a potential opportunity for the SNP’s Oswald to win on a reduced vote share.