Can the Tories gain a footing in Scotland? Here lies the answer

Jonathan Brown visits the Conservatives' biggest target seat north of the border

Douglas Douglas-Hamilton was not the last Tory to hold the seat of East Renfrewshire, though he was undoubtedly the most colourful. In 1933, three years after he was elected for the then Unionist Party with a majority of nearly 14,000 over his Labour opponent, he became the first pilot to fly over the summit of Mount Everest.

As if that lofty achievement were not enough to secure a certain lasting fame in these parts, having succeeded his father as the 14th Duke of Hamilton, the peer found himself playing a pivotal role in one of the strangest episodes of the Second World War.

It is believed that it was for Douglas-Hamilton's home at Dungavel House that Rudolph Hess was aiming when he parachuted into Scotland in 1941 apparently hoping to tap into the peer's convivial relations with both Ribbentrop and Goring, which were built during their meeting at the Berlin Olympics.

The Conservatives, who merged with the Unionists in Scotland in 1965, continued to hold Douglas-Hamilton's old seat in its various configurations until the breakthrough year of 1997 when the Tories were routed north of the Border. Today, it is in the tentative possession of Jim Murphy, Scottish Secretary and Gordon Brown's political fixer in his SNP-run backyard, who has a majority of 5,000. Ironically, Mr Brown was born not far from here in a private nursing home that is now a hotel.

And what was once the Conservative's safest seat in Scotland has become the crucial bellwether whereby the Tory challenger requires exactly the same swing to win the seat as David Cameron needs nationally to propel him through the doors of Downing Street. To add an extra dimension to the powerful symbolism going on, seasoned observers will recall that Scottish secretaries have a nasty habit of falling victim to the changing political tides. In 1997, ministerial incumbent Michael Forsyth was swept away by Labour in the Stirling constituency he had represented since 1983.

East Renfrewshire has no doubt changed since the days when the young Eton-educated Duke worked at the coalface in his father's mines to get a taste of the lives' of the men he would one day control. Now it is a leafy suburb on the southern fringes of Glasgow popular with the city's well-heeled commuters who are drawn here by the excellent schools, open spaces and easy access afforded by the new M77 motorway.

Footballers from Glasgow and Celtic have snapped up the more luxurious real estate while Sharleen Spiteri, lead singer of the Scottish band Texas, is also said to be a resident. For there is a distinct boom feel to Newton Mearns, the town at the centre of the sprawling semi-rural constituency. New bungalows line its streets and builders are busy putting up yet another estate. If anywhere should go Conservative in Scotland on 6 May this upwardly mobile conurbation is it. And the Tories know that.

Conservative candidate Richard Cook is only 38, but he acknowledges the history and tradition of the constituency – once the safest Tory seat in Scotland. He admits it has been a "long road" to rebuild the party since the wipeout of 1997, though he says the Conservatives are "talking the language people understand".

"People are really engaged and have been complimenting us on the positive campaign we are running," he said. "Jim Murphy is telling lies about Conservative policies and trying to scare people into not voting. I wouldn't say there was a curse of Scottish Secretaries but he could certainly be building on a great tradition. People are quite prepared to judge him on 13 years of Labour government."

Outside The Avenues shopping centre, the constituency's commercial heart, the Tories have been working hard to court the swing voters they believe will grant them victory – the so-called Newton Mearns Mums. All four giant billboard poster sites outside the centre, where this key demographic apparently likes to spend its days, have been bought up by the Tories to ram home the "Time for a change" message. But many have yet to be convinced.

Among those wandering past was mother-of-two Claire Gow. Describing herself as a "wobbling Labour voter" the 36-year-old has yet to fall under the Tory leader's spell. "Cameron is a bit smarmy. I quite like Gordon Brown. He has got that grumpy Scottish thing going on. I'd like not to have to work to spend more time with the children but needs must," she said.

Patricia Tolland, 50, a physiotherapist, said that choosing between the parties was difficult. "I have never not voted, but this is the hardest choice," she said. "When I was a student coming from a working-class background I voted Labour. But since then I have voted for most of the parties. The Tories are talking about family values and there is a big call for that. And I like the idea of ring-fencing spending on health," she said.

Mary Biggins, 57, a retired educationalist, said that many of the Newton Mearns' Mums had little to worry about. "The typical woman here is someone who works part-time or not at all, looks after their family and has a husband in a well-paid job," she said. But that does not mean that they do not worry about what's around the corner. Mrs Biggins said: "I am anxious about the financial situation having taken early retirement on health grounds. The fact is that prices keep going up but finances don't seem to be as elastic as they used to be."

Not that this is necessarily good for Mr Cameron. "Margaret Thatcher put me off the Tories for ever and the Conservatives are jumping on anything. They are not being upfront about what they will do," she said.

But according to Fleur de Mello, 68, the game is up for Gordon Brown. "We have suffered enough of Labour for the past 13 years. Labour has been far too lenient on immigration policy. I think that is a huge minus for them because the troubles are coming. The bankers have creamed us all off and continue to do so which makes me angry," she said.

E. Renfrewshire 2005 result

2005 Votes/2005 Share

Labour Jim Murphy 20,815/43.9 per cent

Conservative Richard Cook 14,158/29.9 per cent

Lib Dems Gordon Macdonald 8.659/18.3 per cent

SNP Osama Bhutta 3,245/6.8 per cent

Lab Majority 6,657/14.0 per cent

Turnout 47,405/72.1 per cent