There are not many secrets in politics, and keeping a tight lid on the biggest news story of the year, which directly affects every person in Westminster, is a tall order. Yet when it was announced yesterday that the Prime Minister would make a significant statement at 11am, there had not been a hint of what was to follow.
The element of surprise has given Theresa May a real advantage ahead of her snap general election, because none of the opposition parties are prepared for the fight. In contrast, Mrs May was able to roll out her strategy for a Brexit mandate and then turn her attention to Scotland, calling on the election north of the Border to be about a rejection of a second independence referendum.
If Mrs May achieves both objectives, she will have pulled off a political masterstroke. Victory in the UK-wide poll would be an unimpeachable endorsement of her right to negotiate Brexit on her own terms, and a coveted prize in its own right. But in addition, she could strike a significant blow against Scottish independence if Unionist voters put a dent in the SNP’s current domination of Scottish seats at Westminster. Any reduction in the unprecedented 56 seats won by the Nationalists in 2015 will be seen as, or spun as, evidence that support for independence has fallen over the past two years.
On the one hand it is a bold and brave strategy for the Prime Minister to embark on. She has a slim majority at Westminster, and putting your government’s fate in the hands of the electorate always carries risk. Her predecessor took a risk with his own administration, and lost his job, when misplaced confidence led him to take a gamble with an EU referendum in an attempt to silence opposition within his party and see off Ukip.
But on the other hand, this must be the least risky gamble ever taken with a snap election. Mrs May’s political opponents are in disarray, with the Labour Party at its lowest ebb for decades and hopelessly split over a leader who is never going to guide them into power. Ukip have failed to make their predicted breakthrough, the Lib Dems are nowhere in terms of causing an obstruction, and in Scotland, the SNP have probably hit their high water mark. Even with an astonishing 56 MPs, Nicola Sturgeon’s party has not been able to yield much influence at Westminster.
It’s hard to imagine a clearer road for the Prime Minister. And if it is successfully negotiated, she will be able to end accusations that she is unelected, achieve a stronger negotiating position on Brexit, and bank at least five more years in power.
The opinion polls, and every instinct, tell us that it’s not a question of “if” she achieves victory in this general election, but by how much. Consequently, this is a grim development for Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters. Those who have insisted that the Labour leader would in time prove the doubters wrong now find that he does not have that opportunity. A snap election is expected to deliver another resounding rejection of his leadership, which in all probability will lead to his demise.
And spare a thought for the other victims of yesterday’s developments: the candidates in both the forthcoming local and general elections. It is inevitable, sadly, that the local elections on 4 May will be overshadowed by the bigger event to follow, and even if general election campaigns do not begin officially until those polls have taken place, no-one can stop the political agenda becoming dominated from now onwards by the issues of Brexit and Scottish independence. What remains of the opportunity to debate local issues has been all but lost.
General election candidates do not fare much better. The battle lines have been drawn clearly and simply, and any candidate who hopes to put constituency matters first, or indeed their own suitability, can forget it. We are being asked to vote instead for where each person stands on two key issues.
However, that is the price that has to paid as the UK enters uncharted territory, and Mrs May’s government seeks to legitimise its strategy. The Prime Minister does require a mandate if she is to make progress on Brexit, and short of a second EU referendum, a general election provides the only means she has of clearing opposition to her plans.
Where we take issue with her, however, is over calling a snap election to seek a mandate for Brexit, then telling Scotland that the same election – where people cast the same vote as everywhere else in the UK – is to be about Scottish independence. Remember the repeated assurances in 2014 that Scotland is an integral part of the UK with the same say as all other parts? Those ring hollow today.
The same can be said of Mrs May’s argument that a referendum in 2018 or 2019 would be too early for Scots to make an informed choice on their future, when we are then given a matter of a few weeks to have our say on Brexit via the general election.
Her tactic of turning a Brexit vote into an independence poll is also disrespectful to the one million voters in Scotland who voted to leave the EU, and want to see their wishes carried out, but are now being told the chance they have to endorse it is to take second place to the issue of Scottish independence.
If the Prime Minister wants an answer on independence, then she should ask that question when the time is right, and not confuse two issues which are too important to Scotland’s future to be treated in this way.