INDULGE me, would you? Imagine it’s 8 May and Ed Miliband has led the Labour Party to the brink of power. His party is the largest at Westminster but he’s shy of the majority he needs to walk straight into 10 Downing Street. He needs to cut a deal.
There is, you may have noticed, a growing assumption that the first person Miliband would call in those circumstances would be Nicola Sturgeon. Given that polls suggest the SNP could all but wipe out Labour in Scotland and return more than 40 MPs, then this seems the obvious move.
Miliband would have lost Scotland to the Nationalists. His party, once dominant, would have just a handful of MPs among the 59 Scotland sends to Westminster.
Sturgeon, on diplomatic manoeuvres in England this week, has made it clear she is ready to talk with Labour in order to prevent the Tories returning to power. So, if the numbers fall in Miliband’s favour, of course he’s going to call the First Minister. Isn’t he?
I’m not sure I’d bother, if I were him. In fact, I’d be tempted to point blank refuse to consider any kind of pact with the SNP. After all, what exactly will Sturgeon do if Miliband doesn’t call?
I’m no card player but I know enough that winners don’t show their opponents what they’re holding before the game’s over.
And that rule applies, of course, to negotiations, too.
Sturgeon – in an uncharacteristic strategic slip – has done just that. And in showing her cards, she has – perhaps fatally – undermined her party’s position.
Let’s quickly get up to speed on how the SNP might, according to the SNP, put Miliband in power.
Poll after poll suggests that, just as was the case in 2010, no party can expect to win an overall majority on 7 May. If the largest of the parties is the Tories, then we may well see a further coalition with the Liberal Democrats (on Friday, Sturgeon conceded that David Cameron would, should the Tories return the largest number of MPs, have first dibs on trying to form an administration) but should Labour emerge with most MPs, but fewer than the 326 that would mark a majority, Miliband will have two options. He can either try to seek a deal with another party or parties, or he can try to go it alone as the leader of a minority government.
Sturgeon’s spin is that the SNP will be ready and willing to talk (though she has said a formal coalition agreement is highly unlikely) should Miliband require them to form that majority. The inference is that the Nationalists would sign up to a “confidence and supply” arrangement which would mean support on a case-by-case basis.
So far, so consensual. But things are not quite so straightforward.
For the SNP, the Trident nuclear defence system represents a red-line issue. The party will not be moved on its position that Trident must go.
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Surely, you might wonder, the Nationalists might soften their position when confronted with the realpolitik of an election outcome which would see them within a sniff of having real, tangible influence at Westminster? No, I’m told. The SNP will never support the retention of Trident.
The water can be a little muddy when it comes to talk of informal arrangements but this one is absolutely clear: if the SNP were to offer “confidence and supply” backing, that would demand its support for Labour budgets which would include spending on defence, which includes Trident.
Yes, Labour could, in theory, change its position and agree to scrap the system. But that theory will not translate into a political reality. Miliband’s authority would be undermined immediately. He would be a prime minister dancing to the SNP’s tune; voters across the UK, and fellow leaders across the world might, not at all unreasonably, consider this a sign of weakness.
If, then, the matter of Trident blocks any kind of deal, where does the SNP go?
The answer to that, obviously, is into opposition where, as far as Westminster is concerned, the SNP has been throughout its existence.
Sometimes, opposition has been a very happy place for the SNP, not least when it came to the 2003 Iraq War. The Nationalists made huge capital out of the issue, leading the call for Tony Blair to be impeached (yes, yes, of course it was a stunt but, by Jove, it chimed with many voters).
But times move on and opposition to a Labour-led coalition (involving, perhaps, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party) or a minority Labour government would not be such a breeze.
The SNP would find itself in the unenviable position of either having to support Labour – without any reward – or line up with the Tories in the No lobby of the House of Commons.
Nicola Sturgeon – quite correctly – believes that Scots, given the choice of a Tory or a Labour PM, would choose Labour every time. It would be incredibly difficult for her, given the SNP’s point-blank refusal to ever consider an arrangement with the Conservatives, to explain to Scots voters why, for example, Alex Salmond might be voting alongside David Cameron and, thus, destabilising the Labour government.
For 36 years, the SNP has been taunted by opponents who claim it was responsible for allowing the Tories to come to power. It was the 11-strong SNP group in the Commons in 1979 that first tabled a no-confidence motion in Jim Callaghan’s Labour government. Having seen that the SNP was on her side in this matter, Margaret Thatcher tabled her own successful no-confidence motion and, with Scottish Nationalist support, won by a single vote, setting in train Callaghan’s downfall.
Could the SNP risk being seen to thwart another Labour government to let the Tories in? I doubt that very much.
It requires 326 MPs to create a Westminster majority. But all Ed Miliband requires is that figure, minus however many SNP members are elected. After all, Nicola Sturgeon wouldn’t seriously risk letting the Tories into power through the back door, would she? «