Scotland's Tories risk extinction

As the SNP prepares for a by-election win, John Arlidge reports on deep fears among tartan Conservatives
Beleaguered Scottish Conservatives start their annual conference in Glasgow today with the party north of the border facing its worst crisis since the Second World War.

After a crushing defeat in last month's local elections in which the Tories lost control of every council in Scotland, the latest opinion polls show the party risks losing its remaining 10 Westminster seats at the next general election. Just 40 years after they won a majority of votes north of the border, the Conservatives are set to be wiped off the political map of Scotland.

The first defeat is likely to take place later this month in Perth and Kinross, where the Scottish National Party is poised to win the by-election caused by the death of the maverick right-winger, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn. The SNP captured the local council from the Tories in last month's elections and early opinion polls put the nationalists almost 30 per cent ahead in the by-election race.

Campaigning in the rural seat 40 miles north of Edinburgh will begin in earnest this week. Today, in an effort to boost his flagging support, John Godfrey, the Tory candidate, will open the Scottish Tories' conference. Over the next three days in Glasgow, eight Cabinet ministers, including John Major, will attempt to rally support for Mr Godfrey, a 31-year-old banker, by reaffirming the Conservatives' commitment to the Union and attacking the opposition parties' constitutional proposals.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, will visit the constituency tomorrow when he will address an election rally with the party's candidate, Douglas Alexander, a 27-year-old trainee solicitor. After an unexpectedly strong showing in the local elections in Perthshire, Labour insist they can win the seat. Privately, however, officials concede that the party's best hope is to come second, pushing the Tories into a humiliating third or fourth place in a constituency once held by a former prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas Home.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, arrives on Friday to lend support to Veronica Linklater, the party's candidate. Mrs Linklater, the 52-year-old wife of the former editor of the Scotsman, Magnus Linklater, is the only candidate born in the constituency, and she is emphasising her local links in an effort to win third place.

All eyes, however, are on the nationalists, for whom the by-election is a crucial test. After a disappointing performance in the local elections, in which the party lost control of its only local authority in Scotland's critical Glasgow-Edinburgh electoral battleground, and defeat in last year's Monklands East by-election, the SNP must win if it is to confirm its standing as the official opposition to Labour in Scotland.

Campaigning in Perth yesterday, Roseanna Cunningham, the SNP candidate, acknowledged the significance of the poll. "This is immensely important for us. The by-election provides the SNP with a vital platform to make our case," she said. She was "absolutely confident" that the nationalists would take the seat.

Miss Cunningham's decision to stand is controversial. The 43-year-old lawyer was embroiled in a damaging sex scandal in February after Winnie Ewing, the SNP president, accused her of having an affair with the first husband of Margaret Ewing, the SNP MP for Moray. Yesterday Miss Cunningham, who admitted the affair, said the controversy was "all in the past" and she was confident that "tabloid newspapers will not rake up anything else" during the campaign.

The by-election clashes are expected to centre on national issues. The constitutional battle between Labour's devolution plans and the SNP's independence proposals is set to dominate debate.

Voters go to the by-election polls on 25 May.

nGeneral election 1992: Sir Nicholas Fairbairn (Con) 20,195; Roseanna Cunningham (SNP) 18,101; Merve Rolfe (Lab) 6,267; Malcolm Black (LibDem) 5,714. Conservative majority: 2,094.