Leaders: Can the SNP be kingmakers?

THE Liberal Democrats are used to it by now. In successive Scottish and UK elections they have become wearily familiar with the only question journalists want to ask: Who would you choose to partner in a coalition, and what would be your preconditions?

THE Liberal Democrats are used to it by now. In successive Scottish and UK elections they have become wearily familiar with the only question journalists want to ask: Who would you choose to partner in a coalition, and what would be your preconditions?

Over time the Lib Dems have become adept at dealing with this but it is a tricky business, as Nick Clegg has found to his cost. The SNP is relatively inexperienced in the coalition game, but it had better start learning fast. As Nicola Sturgeon made clear yesterday in a sure-footed first speech as SNP leader, the Nationalists will go into the general election next spring with the aim of holding the balance of power at Westminster. This is no idle boast. On current opinion polling the SNP could hold as many Westminster seats as the Lib Dems.

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There are lessons to be learned from the SNP strategy in the 2010 UK general election. In that contest, Alex Salmond said he wanted “Westminster hung by a Scottish rope”. The party’s slogan was “More Nats, less cuts”, which made up in punchiness what it lacked in grammar. But the Scottish public didn’t buy it, and the SNP won less than 20 per cent of the vote. In particular, many voters didn’t seem to like the possibility that the SNP might end up doing a deal that would help the Tories into power, if that was what the electoral arithmetic allowed. Although the SNP has a policy banning coalition deals with the Conservatives at parliamentary level, it is not averse to “confidence and supply” deals. This was demonstrated in 2007, when the minority SNP administration at Holyrood was made possible with the help of Scottish Tory MSPs. In the 2010 campaign, Salmond openly discussed the scenario of the SNP holding talks with David Cameron if the Tory leader was short of a majority. “I understand the electoral arithmetic that says, for example, the Tories could lead by six points but have no overall majority,” he told one interviewer. “And I also understand minority government. Common sense would tell you that people would regard it as a good time to maximise Scotland’s influence.”

That SNP approach appears to have changed. In her speech yesterday, Sturgeon gave a “pledge” that the SNP “will never, ever put the Tories into government”. Her words seemed carefully chosen. Not only was she ruling out an SNP–Tory coalition, unlikely as that may have been, she also seemed to be ruling out any deal – such as a “confidence and supply” arrangement – that would result in Cameron staying in Number 10. Instead, Sturgeon spelt out an SNP plan for a hung parliament where the only potential prime minister she would do a deal with would be Labour’s Ed Miliband. This is a calculated risk by Sturgeon. A “vote Nicola, get Ed” message might alienate many traditional SNP voters in its conservative rural heartlands. But it could also be a way of winning the support of the many Labour voters who flirted with the Nationalists in the independence referendum, and may now be easy prey – especially if they think they are able to pull of the trick of voting SNP and getting a Labour prime minister.

All depends on the general election arithmetic in May. Scots voting SNP may deprive Labour of the MPs it needs to be even close to winning power, letting the Tories in. Labour will argue that “if you go to bed with Nicola, you’ll wake up with Dave”. Miliband may, if the numbers allow, prefer a deal with the Lib Dems and the Greens to one with the SNP. Or he could defuse much of the speculation by saying his preference, if short of a majority, would be to run a minority administration. Then he could simply challenge the SNP to back him, with no preconditions. That would put the SNP in a spot – do they back Ed and come away empty-handed, or allow the Tories back in? No doubt there are other possibilities. We are set for a fascinating campaign.

G20 gestures won’t spare Ukraine

THE body language at the G20 summit in Australia this weekend told its own ­story. When any of the leaders came into contact with Russia’s Vladimir ­Putin – whether in plenary negotiations, bilaterals or a carefully choreographed “brush-by” – the frostiness was unmistakable. Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper seemed to sum up the mood. “I’ll shake your hand,” he said to Putin when they met, “but I only have one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine.”

Russia’s increasingly threatening posture towards Ukraine is the world’s biggest current threat to peace and international stability. US President Barack Obama may have this weekend sounded a stern warning to China over its treatment of smaller Asian nations in its sphere of influence, but everyone listening knew the main worry was elsewhere, on the shores of the Black Sea and the border areas between Ukraine and Russia that have seen substantial troop ­build-ups and incursions.

Putin’s annexing of the Crimea remains one of the most outrageous geopolitical provocations of recent years. Moscow-watchers believe Russia now wants to secure a land bridge between itself and the Crimea. Whether it uses the now tried-and-tested tactics of backing local pro-Russian groups or, as seems increasingly to be the case, simply dispenses with pretence and sends in the Russian military, remains to be seen. What is clear is Putin’s determination not to allow Ukraine to turn its face towards the European Union, and away from Moscow, with impunity.

The rhetoric of the West towards Putin is increasingly strong – Obama said this weekend that Russia’s “aggression” towards Ukraine was a “threat to the world”. But is there any willingness to counter Moscow with anything more than words? It seems not. No wonder Putin seems to be strolling around Brisbane with what looks to be a permanent bemused expression on his face.

Other than sanctions – which he can live with – Putin knows the West is unlikely to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Ukraine, no matter what empty promises were given by Obama at the start of the Black Sea crisis.

What we are seeing is the unhappy product of Russian aggression and western isolationism. And Putin will exploit this to the full.