Sturgeon is playing for time, hoping Labour's lift won’t last long - Euan McColm

If the SNP could secretly fix the outcomes of UK general elections, the party would ensure the Conservative Party won every time.

Of course, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues are enthusiastic in their public condemnation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, going so far as to demand his resignation over the series of scandals currently destroying his career but the last thing they want is for him to actually go.

The nationalists will always prefer a Tory Government at Westminster because they consider (correctly, I think) that beneficial to the campaign for Scottish independence.

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The moment it became clear Johnson’s belief in his invincibility was misplaced -...
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: PA

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And if the SNP would always prefer a Tory Government, they’d always prefer a Tory leader of the calibre of Boris Johnson. He’s a caricature of the sort of Conservative Scots took vehemently against in the 1980s and, this being so, “Vote Yes to rid ourselves of this lying Old Etonian and his cronies” is a pretty compelling message.

The SNP could not have genetically engineered a more capable recruiting sergeant for their cause than Boris Johnson. After his attempt to delay punishment of Tory MP Owen Paterson blew up in his face, he plunged into a deeper scandal involving revelations about Christmas Parties at Downing Street and a number of government departments while the country was in strict lockdown last December. Then, as colleagues gathered in cliques to discuss the PM’s future, the result of the North Shropshire by-election (caused by Owen Paterson’s decision to resign as an MP) arrived. The Lib Dems smashed the Conservative majority to take the seat and make Johnson even more vulnerable.

But, while Johnson clings to office, he will remain both and asset and a hindrance to the Scottish nationalist cause; an asset because, over time, his presence in Downing Street might encourage more Scots to consider supporting independence but a hindrance because, ultimately, the Prime Minister holds the power to decide whether a second independence referendum will take place.

Given the risk he might lose, there are no circumstances under which Johnson will agree to the staging of Indyref2.

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Sturgeon tells her supporters to ignore that truth, insisting that a point will come when Johnson is compelled to comply with nationalist demands and sign off another referendum. Johnson, goes this version of reality, cannot be trusted except when it comes to giving us what we want. I’ve heard more persuasive arguments, haven’t you?

Unless he swiftly plugs the growing number of holes in the hull of his premiership, Johnson’s position on a referendum is likely soon to be irrelevant.

In the medium term, this is unlikely to change the SNP’s strategy. Any Tory MP will be swiftly characterised as distant, aloof, and contemptuous of Scots so if Johnson is deposed by colleagues, his successor should expect those tried and tested lines of attack.

Any future Tory Prime Minister will help the SNP’s narrative by maintaining opposition to a referendum. But for all that, it’s still difficult to imagine the next Conservative Prime Minister being quite so toxic in Scotland as Boris Johnson.

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In the longer term, the question of how Sturgeon - or her successor, if she doesn’t go the distance - might deal with a Labour Prime Minister will come into focus.

The SNP position on dealing with a minority Labour administration at Westminster is that the party would be willing to cut a deal. Broadly, the nationalist pitch is “we’ll support your budgets in return for a referendum”.

It is entirely possible - if not yet likely - that Keir Starmer’s Labour will be the largest party at Westminster after the next election. Surely, if he was short of an overall majority, he’d gladly agree to a referendum in return for the keys to Downing Street?

This are not quite so straightforward. For one thing, any hint from Starmer that he stood ready to cut a deal with the SNP would damage Labour’s prospects in England. During the 2015 election campaign, Tory posters showing then Labour leader Ed Miliband in the breast pocket of Alex Salmond’s suit were inspired by focus group feedback from English voters who felt Scotland, with its own parliament, was dominating too much of the political agenda at Westminster. A significant number of Scots voters may have retained their enthusiasm for debating the independence question but English voters, understandably, are less inclined to want to give the matter much time.

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And so Starmer (or whoever leads Labour into the next UK General Election) will have no option but to insist there will be no deals with the SNP.

Well, you might say, of course he will but wouldn’t things change if he found himself short of a parliamentary majority?

Perhaps but I’m not sure the SNP would be able to force Starmer’s hand.

If the SNP’s offer to Starmer was “give us a referendum and we’ll make you PM”, wouldn’t his counter be “I don’t want a referendum. I dare you to put the Tories in power, again”?

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At the end of last month, Nicola Sturgeon told the SNP’s conference that she would lay the groundwork so that a referendum could be held in 2023. What she failed to do was explain how she was going to compel the UK Government to give the green light to another constitutional vote.

Perhaps the First Minister is banking on Johnson being replaced by someone who’ll recognise the need for Indyref2 but I think that unlikely, don’t you?

Rather, Nicola Sturgeon is playing for time and - surely - hoping that the lift Labour is now enjoying in the polls won’t last long.

If it starts to look like Scotland could get rid of the Tories without breaking up the UK, the SNP offer might lose what sparkle it retains.

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