Why Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson's days in high office may be numbered – John McLellan

The least surprising news of the week was a new Scottish opinion poll which showed 83 per cent of Scottish voters were dissatisfied with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Will Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson still be First Minister and Prime Minister, respectively, in 2024? (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Will Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson still be First Minister and Prime Minister, respectively, in 2024? (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Only 12 per cent were satisfied and even in my circles I’ve not met many of them.

It must banjax SNP strategists that although the Ipsos Mori/STV Scottish political monitor shows support for Scottish independence nudging 50 per cent, it’s five points down on the last time the same poll was conducted, in November, and follows a two-point drop to 45 per cent in last week’s YouGov survey.

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There are some obvious clues in this week’s sample, the first being that independence is only a top priority for 17 per cent, against 30 per cent for the cost-of-living crisis.

The second is Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar’s net positive score of 19, but also the 41 per cent of people who are dissatisfied with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

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Mr Johnson can at least claim to be a unifying figure, albeit for the wrong reasons, and Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross’s 24 for satisfaction indicates at least half of the most loyal Scottish Tories are as unhappy with the Prime Minister as everyone else.

SNP loyalists will make up the rump of the 32 per cent who want another vote by the end of next year, as Ms Sturgeon has promised, and the 50 per cent will be made up from the 18 per cent wanting one before the 2026 Scottish parliament election. The 32 will include the smattering of Alba voters, just 1.7 per cent at last month’s council elections, but they will be amongst those who don’t believe the First Minister will honour her pledge, and judging by this week’s Spending Review of the Scottish Government’s priorities for the next four years they might not be wrong.

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As health and social security spending is set to take up around £4.4bn of a total budget increase of £5.7bn to £47.5bn, most other areas of expenditure will experience a real terms cut which will hit services most people use regularly, like waste collection, roads, parks and leisure facilities, while Council Tax rockets.

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With the inflation-driven cost-of-living rise biting deeper over the next 18 months – and the Scottish Fiscal Commission’s forecast that approximately 17 per cent of Scots workers will be drawn into the 41 per cent higher income tax band in the next five years – 2023 is not gearing up to be the optimistic backdrop for joyous, civic nationalism.

On the other hand, most voters will welcome an extra £2bn for health if it means shorter waiting lists and better treatments, but the increase isn’t immediate and detail of what the money will achieve has yet to be revealed.

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From an administration which rarely takes a revolutionary approach to public service reform, the cash could easily be soaked up by staff costs, especially with inflationary pressure on wage settlements, and patients might not experience much meaningful improvement in their care.

The unloved local Integration Joint Boards which coordinate NHS and council care services are a good example of well-meaning organisational change which produces little material benefit, and the additional resources might go on establishing the new national care service meant to replace them.

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Like Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s fuel duty cut, it could easily be an investment with no political benefit other than a soundbite. Similarly, choosing to increase social security benefits by £2.4bn will help alleviate hardship for the most vulnerable, but in harsh political terms a significant number of the recipients are likely to be independence supporters already, so not something to attract many more people to the cause.

Despite £20m being set aside in next year’s budget for an independence referendum, the spending review does not look like the lynchpin of a political strategy for the next 18 months, otherwise there would have been more short-term mitigations against visible negative impacts of Scottish Government spending choices, like library closures, music tuition cuts, and the withdrawal of council grant funding for third-sector organisations.

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If anything, that £20m looks like a presentational sop to independence diehards to persuade them Ms Sturgeon is deadly serious in her determination to hold the vote next year.

The 2022-23 Programme for Government announced in September might include the intention to table legislation for some sort of plebiscite, but time is already short for drafting and passing the bill, never mind dealing with the inevitable Supreme Court challenge to its legitimacy, and then running an effective campaign to guarantee success.

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There is not even agreement about the prospectus, and if the EU is the magnet to attract middle-class urban Remainers who voted No in 2014, it doesn’t square with SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford’s view, reported in the Sunday Times last month, that Sterling should be retained to “provide stability”, inferring monetary control could be sacrificed to secure victory.

“The priority in an independent Scotland will be to use fiscal powers to drive up investment… to improve growth and increase living standards,” he said. “We don’t need to change the currency to do that.”

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Pragmatic maybe, but the Copenhagen Criteria for EU membership requires the demonstration of control over exchange and interest rates, which is impossible while jockeying on the back of a non-member’s currency. Not only would EU membership be impossible, but many nationalists wouldn’t regard it as independence at all.

With other pragmatists like ex-SNP strategist Kevin Pringle arguing against a referendum next year, it’s as if Ms Sturgeon is preparing for her exit.

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And then there is the Prime Minister himself. If a wounded Big Dog hangs on, the expectation of a Labour government in 2024 will grow which won’t help independence. If dumped, it might not change Conservative fortunes but will put in place someone more benign to a Scottish audience like Jeremy Hunt or Ben Wallace. North and south of the Border, 2024 is already looking like a big year.

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