SNP had a good conference last weekend despite the leadership’s bloody nose on currency. The venue packed, the First Minister’s speech electrified delegates and impressed watching press and neutrals alike.
But where now with Nicola Sturgeon’s suggestion of a second referendum next year? With that yet again ruled out by the UK Government, it smacks of the party being all dressed up with nowhere to go. The partygoers eager but the venue shut. It was a tactical move to bolster the rank-and-file but one made in the knowledge that it wasn’t going to happen.
Brexit practicalities and perhaps even a UK general election also rule it out. They could offer to support Theresa May in return for a section 30 order but that’ll be viewed as mutually assured destruction amongst both sets of supporters.
There are still opportunities for the SNP, as well as dangers. If, as looks likely, there are EU elections, then they’ll do well though not perhaps as well as they might, given the vagaries of an election system that limits success. But enough to give momentum which is vital in politics, especially as the Tories will be taking a trouncing.
Ruth Davidson may be returning to action but in her absence the ground has shifted under her feet. Far from being the compassionate Conservative and portraying a sensible position on the EU, she’s now in charge of an organisation that’s openly abandoning its moderate and pragmatic position and dancing to the tune of lunatics down south.
If there’s a general election, then the SNP will again do well, as the Corbyn surge has passed and Scottish Labour are a mess. “Get the Tories out” more likely to be delivered by the SNP and many seats lost in 2017 could be won back.
But there are also dangers. The troops are restless, as the leadership defeat on currency showed. Trying to defuse their energies by door knocking is wise and Keith Brown has made an able start. But what message are they taking to the doors? If it’s on the economy is that in or out of the EU, and before or after the pound? It’s complicated and smacks of being seen to do something when little’s being done at all. It might have been wiser to leave it to Keith Brown to pick campaigns as they arise and just get involved locally.
There’s also the danger of constitutional fatigue amongst the electorate. For many, Brexit is bad enough but Indyref2 is causing many to sigh rather than jump with glee. SNP are entirely innocent on Brexit but it’s the field they’ve got to fight on. If independence is viewed as the issue in itself – rather than the opportunities it offers – then they could suffer. The strength of the call for constitutional change is the future it offers of hope and prosperity. If it’s simply seen as being the end in itself, that’s fine for the hardcore but unacceptable to most. There’s a danger that the SNP is allowing that to happen, as the debate focuses on the method rather than the purpose.
Which leads to the Holyrood administration having now been in office for almost three years, yet it’s policy-lite. To be fair, that’s mainly due to Brexit and they’ve done more than Westminster. But that’s not how they’re judged, which is on Scottish public services, where they most certainly need to do better.
There were a few policy announcements at conference but nothing startling, and little immediate that’s tangible. Declaring a climate emergency and being cheered to the rafters is one thing, taking practical action quite another.
They need to get a grip on delivery and raise horizons. If the next Holyrood election is fought on the constitution, they can do well, if it’s on their record they’ll suffer.
There are also internal issues. The currency vote was the sign of the rank-and-file fighting back against the New SNP tendency. Shenanigans by party headquarters on the EU list with candidates blocked or dropped will come back to haunt them as it breeds resentment. The position of Peter Murrell, the party CEO and Nicola Sturgeon’s spouse, looks not just shameless but shameful.
Lastly, there’s the unknown with the most significant factor being the fallout from the Alex Salmond prosecution to come.
From what I hear, some leading SNP reputations could be well and truly burned. Where that goes, no one knows but it’s a factor that has to be taken into account.