One last mention of the UK general election leaders debate. Who won? Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, did rather brilliantly but she had it easy and faced no challenge for her party’s poor record on education and health, for reasons I’ll explain shortly. Miliband was fine too. Cameron played it safe and got what he wanted. Farage was shameless and bizarrely manic. Clegg had a good line of attack on Miliband and Labour’s record, although it won’t matter. The Lib Dem leader looked like a figure from another era, the era that finished earlier this week after the dissolution of the 2010-2015 parliament. The Welsh Nationalist leader kept reminding viewers that she was from Wales. And the Greens leader did fine if you like that sort of thing, meaning economic ruin and nuclear disarmament.
But beyond the post-match analysis and the televised horror of the ghastly “spin room” in Manchester, in which the media and political class demonstrated to any watching civilians how intertwined we are, this debate mattered a lot and was much more interesting than it might have been for that reason.
It gave a glimpse of what Britain is about to become, by which I mean it offered a taste of the constitutional revolution that is likely to follow if the Tories emerge as the largest party and the SNP annihilates Labour north of the border. That is the most likely result of the election on May the 7th.
What should be plain now is that the Conservatives are working unashamedly for an SNP victory in Scotland. They actively want the Nationalists to wipe out Scottish Labour because that way lies the road to Tory victory in the rest of the UK. In pure electoral arithmetic they are right, although it involves taking huge risks with the future of the UK.
When the Tories recently unveiled their poster of a giant Alex Salmond, with Labour leader Ed Miliband a tiny figure in his top pocket, I thought they were running the risk of helping the Nationalists in Scotland just to try and scare English voters about the Nationalists calling the tune in England if Miliband ever has to rely on SNP votes in the Commons.
The danger with that poster is that many Scottish voters rather like what the Tories are suggesting: vote SNP and they will boss Labour about. It is obvious now, and the conversations I’ve had with senior Tories confirm it, that this is quite deliberate on the part of the Tories and very much driven by George Osborne. It was described to me as a “win-win”. They make Miliband look weak and prepared to conspire against English voters, and they boost the Nat vote against Labour in Scotland.
It was there too in the aftermath of last night’s debate, when the Tories led by Osborne talked up how well Sturgeon had done. During the debate Cameron also made zero attempt to critique Sturgeon, whose economic plans are a joke based on an oil-price the SNP said would be $113 per barrel. It is now in the region of $55. Her party’s record on health and education is lamentable, despite the Scottish parliament having had control of these matters for 16 years. She wants unilateral nuclear disarmament. Yet Cameron said not a word of this. Neither did Miliband, though that is because he thinks he might have to work with Sturgeon and he probably didn’t want to appear riled by her rise.
But the numbers favour the Tories when you factor in the Scottish upheaval taking place. The finishing line for an overall majority is 326. The Tories won 306 last time, with Labour on 258. Labour won 41 of those seats in Scotland. If it loses 30 seats to the SNP, look how far back it pushes Labour’s starting line across the UK. Can Miliband make up the difference in England? It is highly unlikely.
In this way, a Nat wipe-out would probably rescue the Tories. They deny it when pressed, of course, and I’ll get angry texts from Tories after this. Every vote counts. They care about the Union. And so on, and so on. Nonsense.
This is where the UK appears to be headed, towards a form of federalism and full fiscal autonomy for the constituent parts of the UK. If Cameron is leader of the largest party he can say after the election that it is time to settle the constitution once and for all in a deal with the SNP. That means full powers over taxation and welfare going to the constituent parts of the country. There would be the introduction of English-only votes at Westminster, or perhaps the even more radical solution of the Commons sitting as an English parliament with the House of Lords replaced by an elected second chamber deciding on the reserved UK issues of defence and foreign affairs. Lord Salisbury suggested this in the days after the Scottish referendum.
If the Nationalists complained about getting such a deal, with full fiscal autonomy, because the collapse in the oil price will leave a massive black-hole in Scotland’s finances, there would then be the beautiful spectacle of the SNP complaining about the Westminster Tory-led government wanting to give the Scottish parliament too much power. In such circumstances, God help Scottish taxpayers.
It is extraordinary that a party of the Union – the Tories – should be doing this. But there you are. These are extraordinary times.