Sturgeon’s plot isn’t to stop Brexit – it’s her bid to start Scexit
By Graham Grant
POLITICAL crises have a tendency to force enemies to work together, as the independence referendum showed.
Labour and the Tories teamed up to defend the Union, portrayed by many separatists as the most unforgivable of sins.
Now we have the extraordinary spectacle of the Nationalists working closely with the Lib Dems to bring about a General Election.
Yesterday Boris Johnson’s attempt to get backing for a snap poll failed because the parliamentary arithmetic wasn’t on his side, but the SNP and Lib Dems may have thrown him a lifeline.
A lifeline that could see him lose office, ironically, but it does create the possibility of an end to the Commons logjam that compelled the Prime Minister to breach the only significant pledge he has ever made – getting Brexit over the line by Thursday.
As a result of that collaboration between Nicola Sturgeon and Jo Swinson, a December election could be approved by a simple majority of MPs today – rather than the two-thirds required under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
In an act of pragmatic plagiarism, the Government is set to bring forward its own version of the Bill which the SNP and Lib Dems had proposed – but it’s an idea for which the Nationalists can justly claim part credit.
Opposition parties will want to scrutinise its terms closely, and there is much haggling and slightly absurd agonising over whether the date would be December 9 or 12.
The SNP, which once prided itself on a North Korean-style allegiance to its leadership, isn’t entirely at one on the suggestion – Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil is among the dissenters.
Last week SNP Commons leader Ian Blackford dismissed the idea of a pre-Christmas election as ‘barking mad’, but rapidly changed his mind, and by this weekend had signed up to Miss Swinson’s plan.
Mr MacNeil, not unreasonably, asked why the established line that the SNP shouldn’t give Mr Johnson the means by which to secure a majority, allowing his Withdrawal Agreement Bill to clear parliament, has broken down.
True, denying Mr Johnson his election and perpetuating the Brexit stalemate might weaken him, and drain more life from Brexit.
But according to the polls, he is well ahead of Labour and a majority government could be within his grasp – a series of massive setbacks has served only to make him stronger.
Mr MacNeil’s chief objection is that the SNP’s Lib Dem pact, if it were to succeed, not only makes Brexit more likely to happen, it also consigns independence campaigners to a kind of purgatory.
Another Tory administration will never sanction a Scexit poll, so the SNP may gift Mr Johnson his election, but remain stuck in neutral (or go into reverse) on its core mission of securing another chance to break up the UK.
Mr MacNeil doubtless spoke for his party’s grassroots when he said: ‘I’d prefer we got going with indyref2.’
But combining the results of major opinion polls for this month shows only 46 per cent of Scots backing independence.
Mind you, a YouGov poll last month found that 15 per cent of Scots believed in the Loch Ness monster: the SNP might have calculated that, on this basis, its long-term plan to ditch sterling could stand a chance of winning over wavering voters.
Realistically, currency won’t crop up in any pamphlet, even though Miss Sturgeon has made it clear that her pitch ahead of a snap election is another ‘indyref’ next year – despite discouraging polls which suggest that one in six Yes voters now supports staying in the UK.
Polls also indicate that Miss Sturgeon is on course to win back some of the seats the party lost in 2017, perhaps most of them – helping to explain her about-turn on supporting a December vote.
But elections throw up countless variables: the Brexiteers among SNP voters, disgusted by Miss Sturgeon’s rejection of their cause, must make up their minds whether they prioritise quitting the UK, or leaving the EU.
An SNP campaign that relentlessly focuses on another constitutional battle, at a time when most of us are wearied by the current one, could prove counterproductive, as it did two years ago.
In any event, Miss Sturgeon’s preference for holding another Scexit referendum in the second half of 2020 has been put in doubt, after the Electoral Commission recommended a gap of at least nine months between the completion of the required legislation and polling day.
Legislation to enable a re-run of the 2014 referendum, introduced by Miss Sturgeon to the Scottish parliament in May, could be completed by the end of 2019.
But supporting legislation would then have to be passed to specify the details of the poll.
There was a hiatus of about two years between the Edinburgh Agreement and the 2014 independence vote – it’s almost as if the SNP, having railed against Mr Johnson for trying to rush through his Withdrawal Agreement Bill, is similarly hell-bent on fast-tracking a Scexit referendum.
And we all know the reason why: the Electoral Commission would have to spend some time, possibly up to 12 weeks, deciding on the wording of the all-important question – and it’s possible it will rule against a repeat of the Yes/No question from 2014.
As in the Brexit vote, Scots may be asked whether they want to ‘leave’ the UK, or to ‘remain’.
But many ‘Yessers’ fear such a stark question, framing the independence argument (correctly) in terms of walking out on a historic partnership, as opposed to embracing a bright new separatist future, would lead to their defeat.
We all know that a knife-edge result favouring either side of the argument second time around would not resolve the fundamental differences that have blighted devolved politics for the last 12 years – it would exacerbate them.
The SNP will never take No, or Remain, for an answer – and despite the received wisdom that a second referendum loss would kill off the drive for independence, do any of us really believe the party would get the message?
And all the while, urgent repairs to our flat-lining economy are, as ever, the last item on Miss Sturgeon’s to-do list.
Neverendum continues to act as a barrier to investment, and a disincentive for business start-up or expansion – but she is prepared to allow that poisonous uncertainty to linger indefinitely.
The primary reason the First Minister wants an election has nothing to do with stopping Brexit in its tracks (as Mr MacNeil noted); instead she’s. pegging her hopes on a fragile minority Labour government that would buckle to her demands in return for propping it up.
Principles are an expendable commodity in these tumultuous times, but Miss Sturgeon has overplayed her hand.
In reality, her election strategy, if her plot with the Lib Dems pays off today,is simply more of the same – peddling an old con trick to voters who are sick and tired of her bankrupt agenda.
*A version of this column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on October 29, 2019.