Nicola Sturgeon has every reason to feel confident as the general election approaches.
It’s not just that polls show the SNP – yet again – leading their rivals in Scotland. It’s that those rivals are, right now, in various degrees of disarray. Compared with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Sturgeon appears a model of wisdom and common sense.
While we continue to speculate about which of the big parties will win the election across the UK, the SNP’s victory in Scotland is already in the bag. Few would bet against the party winning back some of the 21 seats it lost in 2017. It is possible, even, that the nationalists will not only take the vast majority of seats but that they will also, for the first time, win a majority of the popular vote.
Launching the SNP’s election campaign in Edinburgh on Friday, the First Minister was in especially bullish mood, talking about how her party would use the influence she believes it will have after polling day on 12 December.
Unsurprisingly, there is no chance that the nationalists will use their might to support – should the election result create one – a minority Tory government. But should voters return a hung parliament where Corbyn’s Labour has a chance of forming an administration, Sturgeon would be inclined to talk.
There would be no formal agreement, no coalition with Corbyn at its head, but the nationalists might be inclined to help a minority Labour government pass its budget in return for support for another referendum on Scottish independence.
It all sounded rather like Sturgeon has the Labour Party exactly where she wants it.
But, as is so often the case, matters are not quite so straightforward as a politician would have voters believe. Sturgeon’s hand is not as strong as she claims. In this game of constitutional poker, she is bluffing.
It is, of course, entirely possible that Boris Johnson will lead the Conservatives to an outright majority next month. If this is so, then the SNP can whistle for the right to hold another referendum on independence. The Tory position remains that the matter was settled in 2014.
If Johnson leads a Conservative government – either a majority one or a minority with the support of other parties, such as Northern Ireland’s DUP – after 12 December, then there will be no indyref2 any time soon, either. The First Minister would, without doubt, agitate for the right to hold one, she would assert that Scotland was being dictated to by Tories who hold the country in contempt but, while this might be useful in terms of building SNP support in advance of the 2021 Holyrood election, it would do nothing to change the reality that the right to allow an independence referendum remains at Westminster.
Corbyn and a number of senior colleagues have suggested that they would not wish to stand in the way of a second independence referendum. This being so, surely Sturgeon could use the SNP’s numbers at Westminster to force a minority Labour administration to sign off indyref2?
Well, Labour has grown colder on the matter. Another referendum would not be a priority, they say. Some senior members of the party in Scotland say it shouldn’t even be an option.
Let’s say Corbyn has a chance to lead a minority Labour administration. Would Sturgeon make another independence referendum an immovable condition of support for his party’s budget?
If Corbyn refused to meet this demand, would Sturgeon really bring down a Labour government and, potentially, enable the return of the Conservatives?
Even the First Minister’s most enthusiastic supporters might find it hard to swallow that one.
We should consider, too, the question of whether Sturgeon truly wants another independence referendum any time soon.
When she succeeded Alex Salmond as leader of the SNP five years ago, Sturgeon let it be known through briefings by advisers that, although she remained committed to the staging of another referendum, she would only seek to hold one when support for independence had grown substantially. There would have to have been months of polling showing a minimum of 60 per cent of Scots were in favour of breaking up the UK before the question would be asked again.
This was sensible stuff. To lose one referendum might be considered unfortunate but the loss of a second might appear careless. A second defeat on the constitutional question could only damage the SNP and its project.
Polls continue – the occasional blip aside – to show that the majority of Scots support the maintenance of the Union. Victory might not be out of the reach of the SNP but it is very far from assured.
The First Minister has, quite rightly, made much of the chaos brought about by the result of the EU referendum, where a slender victory for Leave has been followed by years of recrimination and division. Sturgeon must accept that a tiny Yes victory in a second independence referendum would have similar consequences.
Over the past five years, Sturgeon has sought to keep members of her party – who yearn for another referendum without necessarily considering the implications of defeat – happy while, at the same time, keeping her promise to be a leader for all Scots, regardless of their position on the constitution. I’m not sure she has managed successfully to ride both of those horses. There is growing frustration in the SNP and other nationalist parties, such as the Scottish Greens, about her failure to deliver the referendum they crave. At the same time, pro-Union voters – many of whom might once have backed the nationalists in government as possessing the safest pair of hands – have flocked to politicians who promise to block another referendum.
When Sturgeon launched the SNP campaign on Friday, she told her supporters the story of how she would use her party’s might to deliver the referendum they want. But the truth is that she can do very little to deliver.
And, given the majority of Scots still support the Union, being refused indyref2 might be the best possible outcome for the First Minister, right now.