The ongoing Partygate scandal and the specter of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister was blamed by party insiders for overshadowing the campaign, which struggled to get its main issues across successfully to voters.
However, some blamed the leadership of Douglas Ross and a misguided, constitution-based campaign.
Local elections 2022: SNP still largest party in Glasgow after Labor surges, but…
In total, the Scottish Conservatives lost 62 councillors, dropping behind Labor and finishing with 19.6 per cent of the vote.
The result comes alongside the UK Conservative party also suffering in England, losing hundreds of council seats, with Labor winning flagship councils in London.
In Scotland, the SNP finished as easily the largest party in Scotland with 453 seats, an increase of 22, and narrowly held on to councils such as Glasgow in a positive night for the party, which had hoped for more gains.
Scottish Labor were narrowly pipped as the biggest council in Scotland’s largest city, which would have been a symbolic cherry on the icing of a strong showing, but finished with 282 councillors, a gain of 20, and that crucial second place position.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Liberal Democrats saw significant gains in councils such as Edinburgh, with 87 seats won across the country, up to 20, leading party leader Alex Cole-Hamilton to claim the “revival” of his party has begun.
It was also a positive night for the Scottish Greens, who also took advantage of strong popularity nationwide to gain 16 seats and almost double their overall representation to 35.
Overall, the SNP finished with 34.1 per cent of the vote, Labor on 21.7, the Tories on 19.6, Independents on 9.9, Lib Dems on 8.6, and the Greens on 6 per cent.
However, the recriminations among the Scottish Conservative party were swift and brutal, with sources underlining the unhappiness among MSPs with Douglas Ross’s U-turn around Partygate and the resignation of the Prime Minister.
Mr Ross is also facing a growing internal backlash, with a growing number of dissatisfied MSPs within the group.
Other senior sources said the U-turn was a “fatal error for the party”, warning it was time for Mr Ross to listen to concerns of the wider party.
One senior Tory said: “It’s up to him how he handles this moving forward. His fate is in his hands. The fate of the party, however, is in all of our hands and arguably more important.”
A senior Conservative councillor told The Scotsman that one of the central problems with the campaign was the continued focus on the constitution.
They said: “I think we need to review our strategy and approach in Scotland, and about how we get things across to people and how we present things that invigorate, that gives them fresh ideas, that is not about the constitution.
“This feels like 1995 all over again. It is no longer good enough for us in Scotland to say we are going to fight everything on the constitution.”
Other senior figures, while admitting it had been a bad election, pushed back on the suggestion Mr Ross would resign the leadership and put the blame squarely on the Westminster leadership.
They also pointed at the figures showing the result was still the second best local election result for the party since devolution.
Miles Briggs, the Conservative’s local government spokesperson, refused to blame Mr Ross, but said it was time for Boris Johnson to reflect on his behaviour.
“We’ve not been able to cut through to anything in this election beyond Partygate,” he said.
“When we’re trying to put solutions on cost of living, it’s been dragged back to Partygate throughout these months, so it’s been difficult to cut through on the issues we wanted to.”
The Lothian MSP called on his party to “regroup” and “rebuild” by looking at areas where the party had held on to seats in order to learn the lessons from the election.
Another senior Conservative said it was not “fair” to blame Mr Ross for the poor performance, with another putting the blame squarely on Partygate and the impact of Boris Johnson as leader.
Others spoke of hearing voters switching to the Liberal Democrats or simply refusing to vote at all and staying at home.
They added: “I hope the Prime Minister has heard this message loud and clear.”
One Conservative MSP said the result was “multifactorial” and couldn’t be pinned solely on Mr Johnson or Mr Ross.
“That might be our voters saying ‘wake up, you’ve taken us for granted’, I think it would be stupid to blame it on [one thing],” they added.
Mr Ross admitted the results were “very disappointing”, adding the Prime Minister “can’t ignore the message” from voters sent in the election.
“The Prime Minister simply can’t ignore the message that’s been sent from voters not just here in Scotland, but across the UK,” he told the BBC.
“The Conservatives lost Westminster Council last night. That’s a council that even in the peak Labor years under Tony Blair the party held on to, so there’s been a very strong message from the public to the Prime Minister and to the party.”
Nicola Sturgeon said the result for the SNP, which saw all the key metrics increase and the party take control of Dundee, was “astonishing” and a “brutal rejection” of the Prime Minister.
She said: “Our opponents are scrapping it out for second place and Labor will be pleased to have taken second place from the Tories, although I think that’s more to do with the disastrous performance of the Tories than it is to do with any genuine advance for Labour.
“They’ll want to find scraps of comfort on this, but the SNP has won this election overwhelmingly and I’m not going to let anybody take away from the achievement of councillors, activists and supporters across the country – it’s a fantastic result for the SNP.”
A jubilant Anas Sarwar said the “nasty Tories are back” as he celebrated the first upward trending result for Scottish Labor for a decade, adding the general election would be a “Boris versus Britain” vote.
“It’s been almost a decade and it’s the first time we’ve had a cheerful day for the Scottish Labor party,” he said.
“For well over a decade now, we’ve had a politics in Scotland where there’s been one dominant party, and there’s been a Labor party that’s been not on the pitch, not been willing to compete, and a Conservative party whose limited ambition has been to come in second place.
“It’s a good day, we’ve made good progress.”
Alex Cole-Hamilton, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said the results demonstrated the beginning of a revival for his party.
“I am over the moon,” he said. “We are back, no question about it.
“When I became leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats in August last year I stated to the party that our revival would begin in local government and so it has.”
Lorna Slater, co-leader of the Scottish Greens, who slipped behind the Scottish Liberal Democrats in terms of vote-share, said the results were “exciting” and a reward for councilors delivering across Scotland.
She said: “All over Scotland we are getting counselors in the councils where we haven’t had them before.
“It is so exciting because we know Green councillors, even only when it’s one or two, can make a massive difference to the council’s focus on the climate emergency and the wellbeing economy, the things that really matter to people.
“We’ve demonstrated both in councils around Scotland we have a good history of delivering and now in government as well.
“The Greens are growing. Our support increases every election, so absolutely we have great hopes for the future.”
The Alba Party, Alex Salmond’s breakaway pro-independence party, failed to hold on to a single one of their seats and performed abysmally across Scotland.
Their best hopes, former SNP Lord Provost in Aberdeenshire, Brian Topping, and Alba general secretary Chris McEleny in Inverclyde, received 274 and 126 votes respectively.
The former prime minister, however, claimed his political party would continue and would aim to take advantage of the SNP potentially failing to deliver an independence referendum in 2023.
Want to hear more from The Scotsman’s politics team? Check out the latest episode of our political podcast, The Steamie.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.