GE2017 in Scotland has shown that Labour is back in business, and that an SNP majority in 2021 Scottish Parliament elections is unlikely. Yet although a second referendum on independence being out of the picture may simplify Brexit, the change in power dynamics will have broader implications. Jim Gallagher explains.
In politics, winners can often be the losers. That’s just happened in the two quite distinct General Election campaigns we’ve had in Britain. It will have profound consequences for our economy and constitution.
Theresa May’s Tory party might be the biggest in Parliament, but is damaged by her decisions. So is she. In an election she didn’t have to call, she’s come across as weak and indecisive, not strong and stable. Her personal position is uncertain. Uncertainty is also the fate of the minority Conservative government she is forming, with the support of the Democratic Unionists from Northern Ireland. Even with all ten of them her majority is tiny. No scope for accidents, defections or rebellions there.
All this might be manageable if the UK were not about to negotiate the biggest set of peacetime changes in modern history. This Brexit election was supposed to equip the government with the authority to agree and implement its plans to take the UK out of the EU. But we learnt nothing about May’s plans, beyond banalities, and everyone from here to Berlin can see she has lost, not gained, authority.
A minority government has to take support where it can find it, so the Brexit process is once again wide open. Who can know what parliament will now accept? A Conservative Prime Minister might be in thrall to anti-European ultras, who genuinely believe no deal with Brussels would benefit the UK. Or there might well be a natural majority in the Commons for a gentle Brexit, willing to pay a price in cash and share sovereignty for open trade and borders.
Nicola Sturgeon is eerily like May. The SNP were never going to repeat their extraordinary success of 2015, but no-one expected what we’ve just seen. The biggest party, the biggest vote share, but also the biggest losers. The difference is that Sturgeon’s woes reduce rather than increase the nation’s uncertainty.
Some of this was down to Sturgeon personally. She badly misjudged the public mood. Brexit didn’t convert Scottish voters to independence. What’s more, they took umbrage at her knee-jerk demand for another referendum. Ruth Davidson didn’t miss that opportunity. She made the Scottish Tories the anti-referendum party. Hence the remarkable Conservative revival, wider than many predicted: most Tory gains in the UK were north of the border, and in the North East big scalps, like Alex Salmond’s, were taken.
The SNP’s problems did not end there. Elsewhere in Scotland, Labour’s unexpected comeback was about something different. Economically pressed voters, once drawn to nationalism in search of a different, left-wing path saw in Jeremy Corbyn the real thing, not the ersatz version. Sturgeon didn’t see this coming until too late, when she launched a personal attack on Kezia Dugdale. Wrong target. Hence Labour’s back in business, taking seats and running the SNP close in others.
So Indyref2 is a dead duck, as Sturgeon may now accept. With over 60% of the voters supporting pro-UK parties, people in Scotland clearly don’t want it. The reduced cadre of SNP MP’s don’t have the leverage to demand one in Westminster, and no party has any incentive to agree it. Each is on the up in Scotland, including the Lib Dems, and all are looking with renewed interest at the next Scottish parliament elections.
On trends like these, an SNP majority in Holyrood in 2021 is out of the question, and both Dugdale and Davidson will be wondering how the nationalists, who might get under 40% of MSPs, could even be denied minority government – and if so which of them might be in pole position to replace Sturgeon.
But bigger fish need fried first. Taking indyref2 out of the picture may simplify Brexit, but it’s still a task that would stretch a government with absolute clarity of vision and complete authority. The election has delivered neither, and the SNP as Scottish devolved government still have a legitimate right to be involved in how these huge changes affect Holyrood’s powers, quite possibly even strengthening them. If Tory and labour leaders in Westminster can find a way to negotiate that maze successfully, then the next Holyrood elections might seem simplicity itself.