An Intentional Stramash?

Once again I’m wondering whether David Cameron’s swithering is an act that is designed to play into his, or at least the Conservative’s, hands.

The Scottish independence referendum received a jolt when a poll put Yes in the lead. That the gap had narrowed was beyond doubt. The Westminster establishment seemed to panic, and various pledges were made about “devo max” aimed at providing a positive message for the No campaign.

In the early hours of this morning, the No campaign won. Within an hour Cameron had given a brief press statement where he appeared to change the ground rules again. Suddenly the discussion wasn’t about what powers the government in Holyrood should have, instead it was how the West Lothian question should be answered. This dilemma, based in the lack of an English parliament but the presence of a Scottish one, was first raised in the 70s, dismissed in the 90s, and has not yet been answered. The idea that a solution could be plucked seemingly out of thin air within a matter of weeks when 40 years of debate hasn’t come up with one – well, simply laughable.

Cameron must have known that, as I suspect many Scots did. But the Tories in Scotland are pretty much toast.

Election Conservative MPs Total Scottish MPs Conservative vote share
2010 1 59 16.7
2005 1 59 15.8
2001 1 71 15.6
1997 0 72 17.5
1992 11 72 25.6

Looking also at the Holyrood elections, the Tories rely on the PR system they so vigorously oppose elsewhere in order to give them any meaningful representation.

Election Constituency MPs Regional MPs Constituency Vote Regional Vote
2011 3 12 13.9 12.4
2007 0 13 16.6 13.9
2003 3 15 16.6 15.5
1999 0 18 15.6 15.4

It’s not as if the Conservatives are going to lose much if they renege on their pre-referendum promise – the stats seem to indicate a bedrock of around 15% beneath which the Tory vote will not go below. Instead the blame may well attach to the other main Westminster parties, the Liberal Democrats and Labour. And these parties are far more susceptible to an SNP advance than Mr Mundell MP in Dumfriesshire.

There does seem to have been a reluctance since 1974 for Scots to return SNP MPs to Westminster. But 2011 demonstrated that SNP is perfectly capable of sweeping the Scottish constituency board, 53 out of the 73 constituency MSPs tells us this. So it’s not beyond the realms of doubt that the SNP would hoover up a number of current Labour seats in west central Scotland.

Labour MPs have proved pretty resistant to the SNP in the past, which is why the analysis of Westminster elections from 2015 onwards have assumed 41 Labour MPs. But I think that’s unlikely if devo max doesn’t appear within the agreed timetable. It would be perfectly possible for Labour to lose 12 or 15 MPs to the SNP, and with the Liberal Democrats only holding Orkney and Shetland and maybe a couple of others with possibly the Tories actually picking up seats like Bearsden and the Borders, any Westminster government may suddenly need SNP support to keep it in power. And guess what their terms will be.

The UK-wide opinion polls have proved extremely steady over the past few months, with the Conservatives struggling to get over 32% and Labour hovering around 36%. Neither of these are percentages which would deliver a majority government from the non-Scottish votes, and if Labour loses a dozen Scottish MPs, a hung parliament becomes even more likely, and it might be Cameron’s gamble that the Conservatives may remain the largest party, especially if the economic figures continue to indicate recovery (which is not the same as an economic recovery actually happening across the country!) After all, the opposition vote does tend to decrease the nearer to a general election we get, and Labour’s lead seems resilient but very slim. A short-term gamble, especially if he will have to rely on SNP MPs to keep him in power.

Except I suspect the appetite within the Tories for another coalition beyond May is vastly reduced, and think a minority Conservative government struggling on for a year or two (until the economy produces even better figures) might be their preferred answer, assuming they could handle the inevitable no confidence votes. The idea of SNP MPs elected on an anti-Westminster backlash assisting the architects of betrayal? Well, more bizarre things have happened, but generally only in times of national emergencies. But if the Tories continue to hold out a better devo max offer than the Labour party, then it might just be in the SNP’s interest to keep them in power.

In summary, I see short-term politics writ large here. But it’s politics which will do nothing to reconnect Westminster with a discontent electorate.

One thing I do know, though – and that’s the 2015 General Election will be pretty much impossible to call. There are simply too many variables: the rise of UKIP along the North Sea coast from Lincolnshire to Kent; how much the Liberal Democrat vote will disintegrate in its core constituencies (because it’s pretty much a given that it will be more-or-less wiped out everywhere else); whether the Green Party will succeed in continuing to attract voters; general voter apathy.

We’re certainly in for a period of more political uncertainty.

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