Lesley Riddoch: Nicola Sturgeon facing a fight on two fronts

Scotland's First Minister faces a simpler task than other UK colleagues, writes Lesley Riddoch

Talking on the BBCs Andrew Marr show, Nicola Sturgeon spoke out about the looming EU referendum. Picture: BBC

With the date of the European referendum settled, political leaders can finally apply themselves to the business of winning it – and on the face of things, Nicola Sturgeon has a far simpler task than her colleagues in Northern Ireland, Wales or England.

The DUP leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster backs leaving the EU – a stance that puts her at odds with the Irish prime minister Enda Kenny, her party’s power sharing partners Sinn Féin and her own electorate who fear Brexit will create an EU border with the Irish Republic and end a decade of harmonious cross-border relations.

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A November poll in the province put Remain on 55 per cent, with just 13 per cent backing Brexit.

The pro-European Welsh First Minister, Labour’s Carwyn Jones, has precisely the opposite problem with a recent poll putting the Leave vote at 45 per cent, and Remain on 37 per cent.

That despite the Labour First Minister’s warning that Brexit would “effectively end” farming in Wales.

And of course, David Cameron’s Euro-nightmare has only just begun. The ink on his hard won “special deal” was hardly dry when six cabinet colleagues stole the weekend headlines by declaring their collective intention to support the Leave campaign.

True, the group is hardly the most charismatic, but these modern-day “bastards” – to quote Sir John Major’s comment on his own Eurosceptics – have one big advantage. They passionately believe in the merits of “becoming a powerful nation state again” (though one is tempted to ask which nation), whilst Cameron and the “Remain camp” are sticking feverishly to a dry, technical agenda of red cards and immigration controls.

And of course, the Leave cause was massively boosted last night south of the border by the announcement by Cameron’s likely successor, Boris Johnson.

His decision might well be connected to the latest poll of polls published by Professor John Curtice. It shows that across the UK 54 per cent intend to vote Leave while 46 per cent want to stay.

Compared to the uphill struggles facing David Cameron, Carwyn Jones and Arlene Foster, the European campaign ahead of Nicola Sturgeon appears to be a bit of a slam dunk.

Scots seem to be fairly settled supporters of the European Union – the last Panelbase survey found 35 per cent want to leave, while 65 per cent want to stay, an 18-point difference with England.

Unlike any other part of the UK therefore, Ms Sturgeon is in the enviable position of holding the same views on Brexit as the majority of her electorate. Indeed, the First Minister believes her profile and popularity across the UK means she must try to persuade left-leaning English voters too. After all, what’s to lose?

Everyone from Tony Blair to William Hague says an Out vote against Scotland’s wishes would trigger a second indyref. So it seems Ms Sturgeon has it made.

Heads she wins and the UK stays in Europe – distancing the prospect of hard-to-handle European borders with England should Scots vote to become independent next time around. But tails she also wins – and the UK leaves the EU demonstrating such an important deviation in the political wills of England and Scotland that a second independence referendum is called within weeks.

That’s the theory – but in practice the situation facing Nicola Sturgeon is not that simple. Polling suggests that such a scenario would produce a slender majority of for independence but not the 60 per cent the SNP leader wants.

And there are other challenges which can be summed up in two names – Jim Sillars and Alan Johnson.

This weekend, the former SNP deputy leader and Nae Fear author suggested Scots could hasten Scottish independence and removing the obstacle of EU hostility to such an outcome simply by voting to Leave.

Jim Sillars said the Yes movement would always face fierce resistance from Brussels while the UK was a member because European leaders worried that areas like Catalonia might follow.

Now of course Jim Sillars carries less clout than Nicola Sturgeon. But many Yes voters are not sold on the progressive credentials of the EU - an unlovely political beast with few genuinely persuasive or popular leaders. The EU’s bureaucracy, its tendency towards government by directive, , the closing borders against the incoming tide of refugees and the critics of fatcats in receipt of Common

Agricultural and Fishery payments – all of this has left many SNP supporters lukewarm at best about the EU. And judging from her appearance on Sunday’s Andrew Marr show, Nicola Sturgeon is not much different.

Her support for Europe seems to be more of a calculation than a cause.

By contrast, Labour’s former Home Secretary and Britain in the EU leader, Alan Johnson was in robust form on BBC radio, snorting with derision at the notion government ministers’ hands are tied by Europe. “Never happened to me as Trade Minister – not once in 12 years” and equally contemptuous of the notion Britain is pushed around in Europe by France and Germany.Johnson is part of a generation old enough to sound sincere when they cite the absence of war and promotion of shared social values as good reasons to stay with the EU.

And – more importantly – voices like his will be heard every night by Scottish voters in the run-up to the Holyrood elections, now that the EU campaign is to overlap.

That’s partly why Nicola Sturgeon has opted to head south, stride the British stage and try to capture UK headlines. She must – yet again – fight two elections simultaneously and not appear to desert her post in either campaign. She must not cosy up to the architects of austerity while Scottish Labour’s tax rise policy looks to be gathering ground.

Nor can she pick empty fights with like-minded political rivals lest she appears opportunistic to voters who have always admired her straight-talking style.

In short, the issue of Europe has stressed every political party at one time or another – the next 18 weeks will present serious strains for Nicola Sturgeon as well.