Paris Gourtsoyannis: indyref2 limits influence of general election result

Theresa Mays walk in Snowdonia might have changed the course of politics, with grim consequence for Labour. Picture: Getty Images
Theresa Mays walk in Snowdonia might have changed the course of politics, with grim consequence for Labour. Picture: Getty Images
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A historic result for the Tories in Scotland might not change all that much, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis

A long walk can clear the mind. When Pierre Trudeau was contemplating whether to stand for election as Prime Minister of Canada for a sixth time after 15 years in power, he told the country he had taken a long walk in the snow – and then quit.

For Theresa May, it was a long walk in Snowdonia that gave her the opportunity to mull over her own future. The decision she carried down an unknown Welsh hillside promises to redraw the political map of the UK.

But wait, the cry goes up from voters in Scotland. We’ve just redrawn our political map, thanks very much – several times in the past ten years, now that you ask. Look there, the ink isn’t even dry. Keep your clichés to yourself and leave us alone.

That may be the case, but the first Scottish polls since the election announcement suggest that, like the Prime Minister on the way back from her Easter break, the SNP are making a gentle descent. “Peak Nat” has been reached, and it’s all downhill from here.

After 20 years of being shunned, Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives are set to double their vote and make a decisive breakthrough. Analysis suggests the Tories could win as many as 12 seats in June.

We have, to be fair, heard this before. The oracles have long foretold the arrival of a “Praetorian guard” of Scottish Conservative MPs at Westminster. They were due to arrive in 2010 to mark the triumph of David Cameron’s freshly detoxified Tories.

Ruth Davidson made the prediction again herself in 2015, but faced a nail-biting wait on election night to confirm the survival of Scotland’s sole Conservative MP, and only just.

Circumstances have obviously changed. The independence referendum, the collapse of Labour, the EU referendum and the debate over indyref2 have given the Scottish Conservatives the ideal conditions for their revival. The target of a dozen is finally in reach.

Even so, the concept of ‘peak Nat’ is a hollow one. It suggests that winning this election by a wide margin, like they won the last Scottish election, is insufficient for the SNP to maintain its momentum. Only crushing majorities will do.

It doesn’t make much sense. It is true that in purely arithmetical terms the party probably did peak in 2015, when it came within a few thousand votes of an outright popular majority in the last set of Westminster elections. It may never command that kind of support again.

But even if the SNP carry 40-odd of Scotland’s constituencies rather than 50-odd, with somewhere short of 45 per cent of the popular vote rather than 50 per cent, and win the election north of the border by 15 points rather than 25 – what difference would it make?

Sitting on the opposition benches alongside a defeated and even more demoralised Labour Party – potentially still led by Jeremy Corbyn – the SNP group at Westminster would continue to claim the title of unofficial opposition.

A Conservative landslide could hurt the SNP at home, but it would do Nicola Sturgeon a favour by destroying Labour’s hopes of gaining power. Her campaign for a second independence referendum could skirt awkward questions about Europe and instead be all about convincing voters they face a Narnian winter of Tory rule from Westminster.

In Downing Street, there is no reason to believe the thinking on indyref2 would change. While there was briefing from both sides about the relative size of each other’s mandate when Article 50 was triggered, Mrs May’s argument for denying a second referendum rests on one thing: Brexit. She insists a second independence referendum cannot distract from Brexit talks and cannot be held before the terms of the UK’s future relationship with the EU becomes clear.

Implicit in that position is the acceptance that at some point, the Prime Minister will have to consider the Scottish Parliament’s demand for indyref2. It would take a collapse in support for the SNP to change any of the above, and the loss of a few MPs won’t cut it.

The vote in seven weeks’ time will, however, polarise Scottish politics in a way that even the 2014 referendum failed to do, as the Conservatives become the party of the Union and swallow up what is left of Scottish Labour.

The real question to be answered this election isn’t whether the SNP have peaked, but whether Labour have cratered. The chasm in the polls between Labour and Conservative is getting wider – 25 per cent and counting at the time of writing. In Wales, for generations synonymous with Labour politics, the Conservatives are poised to take a majority of seats for the first time since the 1930s.

The Liberal Democrats believe they can profit from the collapse, with sources privately expressing hopes of taking as many as 30 seats. But that would do little to halt the juggernaut Mrs May is driving.

A majority of 200 would allow the Prime Minister to abandon the 2015 Tory manifesto, dispense with troublesome ministers, and push through a Brexit deal without regard for either the pro-Remain or hard-line Brexit factions among her own MPs.

Some have suggested this means the UK could get a “better” or “softer” Brexit deal. It will most likely just mean a smoother Brexit deal for the government, making the kind of payments and concessions needed to secure a trade deal with the EU easier to get through the House of Commons.

Like in France, where established political parties have been scorned by the voters, the story of this election is the collapse of the left and the disappearance of the centre. The question it poses it what will fill the gap.

Tony Blair is openly flirting with a return to Westminster, but he cannot act as a British Emmanuel Macron, the favourite for the French presidency who dispensed with established political structures and built a new movement that could credibly ask for people’s trust.

Somewhere in west Wales, there is a hill that one Conservative source jokingly suggested could be renamed ‘General Election mountain’. If Labour ever recover, they should arrange for it to be strip mined into rubble. It’s where their status as a power in UK politics went for a long walk and never came back.