‘Kipper in the face’ as list takes Wheelhouse from gloom to glory

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IT WAS about 2.30 on Friday afternoon when a tired and disconsolate Paul Wheelhouse received a mobile phone call.

It was a supporter who, six hours earlier, had learned he had been unsuccessful in his bid to become the SNP MSP for Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire.

Although Mr Wheelhouse had vastly improved his party’s performance on a night when the Nats carried nearly all before them, he had failed to overhaul his rival John Lamont who now had the safest Tory seat at Holyrood.

“We had done really well and I had a great team behind me, but John was a formidable opponent, well known locally and a hard worker.

“Despite that, I was naturally disappointed not to have prevailed on such a wonderful day for my party.”

After thanking his helpers, Mr Wheelhouse was sharing an early afternoon cup of tea with his agent Anne Murray in Galashiels when he took that call.

“My friend offered his congratulations on my performance, and I replied, rather brusquely: ‘What do you mean? I lost.’ He came back with: ‘No you silly fool, you’re in on the list’.

“It was a shock akin to getting a kipper in the face,” said Mr Wheelhouse.

Under Scotland’s system of proportional reputation whereby 56 MSPs are elected from eight regions, Mr Wheelhouse had been placed sixth for his party on the South of Scotland list.

His lowly placing did not preclude his election. The top three – Christine Grahame, Aileen Campbell and and Adam Ingram – were all elected via their constituences and because of a massive surge in list voting for the SNP, which amassed 114,000 across the South of Scotland, Mr Wheelhouse and his fourth and fifth placed party colleagues – Joan McAlpine and Aileen McLeod – were all elected.

“It was beyond my wildest dreams to go from weary despondency, tempered of course by how well the party had done, to total elation,” recalled Mr Wheelhouse yesterday. “It was a wonderful feeling and a very emotional moment for Anne and me.”

At his home in Ayton, his wife Lorna and son Rory, seven, were given the life-changing news.

“They were so delighted, especially Rory who had gone off to school on Friday morning thinking daddy wasn’t going to Edinburgh and returning later to find he was. He is so chuffed.”

Such are the vagaries of politics that this apparently electoral no-hoper – squarely defeated a year earlier when a well-beaten fourth at the General Election behind Lib Dem Michael Moore MP in Berwickshire Roxburgh and Selkirk – was being touted as “one to watch” in Scotland on Sunday.

“Wheelhouse is an economist specialising in further and higher education markets, bringing a wealth of policy expertise to his role ... He has real potential to shine,” enthused the newspaper.

“I don’t know who wrote that, but it is very flattering and, once I find my feet at Holyrood, I really do believe I can make a difference.”

The Ulsterman has worked for 18 years with an economic development consultancy and puts creation of jobs in a revived Scottish and Borders economy top of his policy agenda.

“Perhaps a role on one of the cross-party committees, either in rural affairs or transport, would be a good starting point, but I want to walk before I can run.”

Just before being sworn in yesterday, Mr Wheelhouse told TheSouthern that, although a list MSP, he intended opening an office in Hawick or Selkirk.

“I want to be close to the most populous parts of the constituency and need a base to launch a challenge to Mr Lamont in five years.

“The ballot box piles and the regional list votes showed the SNP had overwhelming support in Selkirk and majority support in Hawick, so that will be my starting point.

“I do not believe this is a one-off blip for the Lib Dems. The feedback I was getting before the election was that many, many Lib Dem voters had voted tactically in the past to keep the Tory out. Clearly they felt betrayed by the coalition at Westminster, but crucially they saw a chance to vote with their heart as well as their head this time round.

“Before the polls and now, I offer assurances that the vote for the SNP was not in itself a vote for independence.

“My view is that people voted for us because of our record in government, abolishing prescription charges, putting extra police on the beat and, most importantly of all, freezing council tax. The SNP is very much here to stay.”