I know from some exchanges I've had myself that it's startlingly difficult to pin down supposedly 'bullish', 'confident' Scottish Tories on what their realistic target for the general election actually is. Cynics might think that may just have something to do with the overwhelming and consistent polling evidence that any progress the party makes north of the border is likely to be disproportionately limited (to put it mildly) compared to just about everywhere else in the UK. However, to be fair, Scotland on Sunday is today reporting that David McLetchie has nailed his colours to the mast by expressing confidence that the Tories can outperform the SNP.
As thoroughly misplaced as that optimism seems, one distant memory is preventing me from dismissing the idea totally out of hand. In the run-up to the 1992 election, the SNP were generally polling ahead of the Tories, and the projections from the BBC exit poll on election night itself suggested the SNP would end up with eight seats to the Tories' three. But, when the real results came in, the Tories had beaten the Nationalists in the popular vote by 26% to 22%, and by eleven seats to three. As the coming general election may be the first won at UK-level by the Tories since 1992, there's at least a case to be made that the outcome in Scotland may resemble 1992 more than it does any of the intervening elections.
However, for my money the opposite may well happen. This could be one of those key elections, following on from 1959, 1979 and 1987, that shows Scotland completely bucking the UK trend in its response to the Conservative Party's pitch for votes. The Euro elections last June were a pretty strong clue - the Tories secured first place in all but one English region and even in Wales, but in Scotland were left languishing in third place on a dismal 17%.
The reason? Well, it's getting harder to make the rhetoric of a two-horse Labour-Tory race stick, when the SNP have not just consistently been finishing in the top two in Scottish elections, but actually winning elections outright. Not to mention, of course, the credibility that comes from having formed the Scottish government, which takes us into completely uncharted territory at a Westminster election. Whereas in the 1980s under Thatcher the Scottish Tories were hated, nowadays they're to a very large extent simply ignored. It's striking that it's the latter that actually seems set to produce the worse result - for how many people truly think the party will even equal Mrs Thatcher's low point of 24% of the vote in Scotland?