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Election Spotlight: Lib Dems dream of Highland fling as former SNP Westminster leader steps down

© Sandy McCook / DC ThomsonAngus MacDonald. Image: DC Thomson
Angus MacDonald. Image: DC Thomson

When multi-millionaire businessman Angus MacDonald was asked by the Lib Dems to take on SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford in Charles Kennedy’s old seat, his response could hardly have been more emphatic.

MacDonald, who is said to be able to trace his Lochaber roots for more than 1,000 years, says he thought back to the way Kennedy was treated during the 2015 General Election and told party bosses “you bet”.

A lot has changed since then.

Blackford quit as Westminster leader and announced last year he will not stand again after nine years representing Ross, Skye and Lochaber.

The constituency he held has now been broken up as part of boundary changes so MacDonald will, instead, look to stop former SNP MP Drew Hendry from winning the new Inverness, Skye and West Ross-shire seat.

A chance for revenge?

For the Lib Dems, the campaign is an opportunity to exact some degree of revenge.

But it is also an intriguing battle that mirrors a national push by pro-Union parties to pick apart the SNP monopoly established across much of the country following the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

Blackford inflicted a shock defeat on Kennedy in 2015 as the SNP swept nearly every seat in the country but the contest was mired in controversy.

Blackford’s slogan, “Where’s Charlie?”, was seen as a pointed dig at Kennedy’s well-documented battle with alcoholism.

Kennedy died at the age of 55 just weeks after losing his seat.

Charles Kennedy (left) and other senior Liberal Democrats campaigning in the 2006 Dunfermline by-election. Image: Supplied

MacDonald, who went out ­campaigning with Kennedy during his time as MP, told us: “I think there’s a great deal of affection for Charles Kennedy in the area and people, especially in Lochaber and Skye, feel he was badly done by.

“I knew him well and helped him with his campaign. His son, Donald, was out with me the other day in Fort William and has been very supportive.”

Controversy over donations to Tories

MacDonald is seen as a strong local candidate but his selection caused controversy.

He is a former investment ­manager based in Ardnamurchan whose business interests extend to employing about 400 people, including at the Highland Cinema and Highland Bookshop in Fort William.

But eyebrows have been raised over his previous donations to the Tories.

According to the Electoral Commission, MacDonald handed over £25,000 in the dying days of Theresa May’s leadership in 2019.

Angus MacDonald is the owner of the Highland Cinema. Image: Supplied

He donated £5,000, £2,500 and £7,501 to local Conservative groups between 2016 and 2017. MacDonald also gifted the Liberal Democrats £5,000 in 2015.

The businessman said he was “an active donor to anyone who held the feet of the SNP to the fire” and that he also gave money to Scotland In Union and Better Together.

Despite the controversy, the Lib Dems view MacDonald as an ideal candidate and are throwing everything they have at the key target seat.

They were reduced to a rump after their stint in coalition with the Conservatives and the 2014 referendum, and have never fully recovered.

The party dropped from 57 MPs before the 2015 election to 11 in 2019.

Jo Swinson, who had gone into that election claiming she could be the next prime minister, lost her East Dunbartonshire seat by 150 votes to the SNP’s Amy Callaghan.

Nicola Sturgeon’s ­enthusiastic celebration of her defeat soon went viral.

A vital start in national fight back

Winning seats like Inverness, Skye and West Ross-shire is essential if they, and other pro-Union parties, want to turn back the tide a decade on from the referendum.

However the Lib Dems face a difficult task, with Blackford winning his former constituency with a majority of more than 9,000.

Drew Hendry, who previously represented Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, is likely to be better known in Inverness – although MacDonald, who is also a Lochaber councillor, could have more recognition in the north-west Highlands.

MP Drew Hendry. Image: Supplied

Party insiders believe it will be a straight race between the two, with the final result being incredibly close.

MacDonald says he is ­running his campaign like one of his businesses, including key performance indicators and weekly targets – an approach he believes has never been seen before in Scottish politics.

The feeling among senior SNP figures is that they will win the seat but with a reduced majority under Hendry.

The party has been keen to talk up MacDonald’s ties to the Tories but its own record on delivering for the Highlands could be an issue.

Ian Blackford.
Ian Blackford announced he was quitting. Image: PA.

A landmark project to dual a stretch of the A9 between Perth and Inverness has repeatedly been delayed and it not expected to be completed until at least 2035.

The SNP faced uproar after new regulations came into force that broadly banned wood-burning stoves from being installed in newly built homes.

It also went into the election with an ongoing police ­investigation into its finances unresolved.

But the hope is that the recent woes will not factor as heavily during a Westminster election, giving bosses the chance to rebuild ahead of the 2026 Scottish Parliament vote.

Difficult to call

One senior SNP figure said: “Unless we pull our socks up in two years, we’ll be in for a tough time. I’m certain about that.

“The SNP vote is depressed and I think the main reason is the last three years of us being sidelined by this dreadful Bute House Agreement, of which John Swinney was one of the key architects.

“All we’ve done is hack off vast swathes of people. Farming, fishermen, oil and gas, they think we’re not interested. We’re obsessed with climate change, this crisis and that crisis but not their interests any more.

“I think the SNP record is going to damage us. On the other hand, the Tories have completed a remarkable self-destruction in the space of just a few weeks.
“So, in the Highlands, it’s going to be a difficult one to call.”