Let battle commence. With the local elections out of the way the initial skirmish they provided last week has given every party some useful intelligence to put into their general election planning.
As is usually the case once the votes have been counted and the successful candidates declared, every party has sought to present themselves as the winner by one yardstick or another. There can be little doubt, however, that the largest and sincerest of smiles are on the faces of Conservative and Unionist supporters.
Yes, the SNP is the largest party overall – but nobody expected anything other than that. The nagging doubt in SNP HQ is that on the back of the impressive result of the 2015 general election it did not do as well as expected. The fear for its lead strategist, chief executive Peter Murrell, and his wife, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, is that together they have overplayed their hand on demanding a second independence referendum on the back of the British people’s vote for Brexit.
While there will be SNP joy from unseating Labour as the largest party in Glasgow, it will be tempered by the disappointment of not giving them enough of a drubbing to win overall control, and the worrying confirmation of a trend that points to peak SNP having been passed in Glasgow as well as in Scotland.
In 2015 the SNP vote in Glasgow was 55 per cent, by the Holyrood vote of 2016 it had fallen to 53 per cent and now in the council elections it is only 41 per cent.
Likewise, losing control of Dundee and Angus councils has taken the shine off what would otherwise have been good overall results. Murrell claiming an SNP gain of six councillors in Scotland is indeed literally true but no reasonable person can dispute that, when taking account of the boundary changes the SNP agreed to, there has been a net loss of seven. In Scotland the Unionist parties won 57 per cent against 43 per cent of SNP/Green councillors.
The biggest lesson to come from the local elections is how Scottish voters are beginning to think tactically again, as they did in 1997. Back then, the purpose was to try to unseat MPs from a Conservative government, an outcome that was achieved by backing one of the three parties most likely to unseat the sitting Tory. Now we can see across Scotland voters choosing from any of the three parties best placed to defeat the SNP.
As a result, possibly a dozen SNP constituencies are in play at the coming general election. From the results we now have we know that the Liberal Democrats have justifiable hopes in Edinburgh West, East Dunbartonshire and North East Fife and that Labour should not give up on Edinburgh South or East Lothian. For the Conservatives the initial targets of the Borders, Perth and Moray have been extended to include Alex Salmond’s seat of Gordon.
The latter might be a clever feint to draw attention and SNP resources from other seats, but the point is that the electorate in each constituency can now see which party is best placed to defeat the SNP member and act accordingly.
Local elections never provide a certain guide for the results of any general election that immediately follows and should be considered with some caution. The turnout is always considerably lower (around 40 per cent compared with 70 per cent), there are a large number of Independent candidates that stand and don’t just attract a sizeable vote share but actually win seats – and there can be local issues that do not impact on the national debate.
It is, nevertheless, disingenuous if not deceitful for the SNP to claim the local elections were not about independence when its Edinburgh group leader attacked other parties for not being Scottish and Sturgeon asked people to get behind the Holyrood Parliament’s vote for a second referendum.
The Conservatives skilfully combined their local campaigns and manifestos with the call to stop a second independence referendum, tapping into a growing public mood that the First Minister was spending too much time on the constitutional issue rather than education, health or other crises of her government’s own making.
With the party manifestos still to be published, suddenly Scotland does not look the walkover for the SNP that many would have staked money on before. Yes, the SNP will remain the largest party but the question now is how many seats it will lose, rather than if it will take the last three it did not win in 2015.
No matter which Unionist parties win seats against the SNP, Theresa May can afford a smile for it is unlikely to eat significantly into her expectedly large overall majority.
If Murrell and Sturgeon cannot at least match their party’s performance of 56 MPs from a 49.9 per cent share of the vote, then claiming a mandate for a second referendum will just not ring true.
On the other hand, were they to achieve such an outcome an agreement to hold a referendum would become irresistible.Given then that no serious Brexit negotiations will take place until after Germany’s elections at the end of September, there could be the prospect of it being held in that summer window at the insistence of Westminster rather than Holyrood.
How could the SNP refuse? After all, our First Minister never tires of telling us that May is ready to concede a hard Brexit, so why not have the referendum based upon that scenario?
It would certainly put the SNP in difficulty, for its EU policy is in meltdown, with Westminster leader Angus Robertson saying full EU membership (and all the costs and loss of control that entails) remains the party line while Sturgeon equivocates by hinting at competing options.
The bittersweet irony of a hard Brexit is that, while Sturgeon values it more than a softer deal (because it gives her a greater pretext for a referendum), it would also be the most damaging to her economic argument for independence. A hard Brexit would mean a hard indy, with Scotland facing a hard border with England – akin to what exists between Poland and Russia – with a different currency, burdensome regulations and all the bad implications for Scottish export trade these would factors would bring.
The local elections have given the Unionist parties the belief they can eat into the SNP’s dominance, just when they need it the most.