27 September 2019

The Tories must hope Nicola Sturgeon’s ambush pays off


It says a lot about the esteem in which Nicola Sturgeon is held by many London-based journalists that a Tweet from the First Minister on just about any subject can get them swooning all over the place. Take this morning, for instance. Sturgeon tweeted: “Agree with [Tweet from journalist Sonya Sodha]. VONC, opposition unites around someone for sole purpose of securing an extension, and then immediate General Election. Nothing is risk free but leaving Johnson in post to force through no deal – or even a bad deal – seems like a terrible idea to me.”

And suddenly the hare is running again. Cue much speculation about a “caretaker” prime minister and whether Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat leader, will reverse her stated position of opposing Corbyn at Number 10 (as if any Lib Dem leader would ever perform a U-turn of any magnitude!).

To understand Sturgeon’s motives in all of this, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that despite appearances, all is not as serene in Camp Sturgeon as might be thought by southern observers. Despite the First Minister having never even hinted that she is contemplating standing down, manoeuvres are underway by potential rival candidates. Joanna Cherry, for example, the nationalist MP who led the Supreme Court challenge to Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament, has her eyes fixed on a Holyrood seat – the Edinburgh constituency soon to be vacated by former Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson. Cherry is being openly talked about as a future leader; the only question is how far in the future her ambition takes her. Once ensconced in the Holyrood chamber, she would be an unwelcome (to Sturgeon) focus for nationalist impatience with the current leadership.

Then there is the Salmond question. Least said, soonest mended, as we say in Scotland. Suffice to say that whatever the outcome of the forthcoming criminal trial of Sturgeon’s former friend and mentor on charges of serious sexual assault, the political consequences could be substantial.

Thirdly, there’s the on-going itch of a second independence referendum. This is the only thing that keeps 90% of SNP members in the party and they are truly desperate for another chance, believing, with some justification, that the current Brexit mess at Westminster strengthens the case for Scexit. But here once again, Sturgeon isn’t in an ideal position. Having raised the prospect of a second referendum the day after the EU referendum result, she has made no progress since. This is for one very important reason: the power to authorise it lies at Westminster, not at Holyrood. Sturgeon has set her face unequivocally against an “unofficial” Catalonian-style vote that wouldn’t be recognised as legal internationally, so her success depends on a sympathetic hearing in Number 10.

That’s all very well, but a significant number of her activists, and even some of her parliamentarians, are allowing their impatience to embrace radical alternatives, like interpreting another general election performance in which the SNP win more than 50 per cent of Scottish constituencies (as has happened on the last two occasions) as a mandate to begin separation talks.

On top of all this, Sturgeon feels frustrated that she is not centre stage in this Brexit farrago. As a member of the Scottish Parliament, she has no direct locus in either the negotiations with the EU27 or in the daily parliamentary dramas beamed into our living rooms. How else to get UK-wide media attention except by making pronouncements that throw the UK parties’ established strategy into doubt?

And she has indeed chucked a moggie into the pigeon loft. Labour, the Lib Dems and, we assumed, the SNP, were happy to wait for Boris Johnson to stagger towards the October 19 deadline when, in the absence of a final agreed deal, he will be legally forced to seek a humiliating extension to Britain’s EU membership. Only once that hurdle was safely negotiated would the opposition parties agree to hold a general election.

Sturgeon’s new suggestion is that the vote of no confidence that has been resisted by all the opposition parties so far might now take place at her own party’s behest. This would, she claims, ensure that a replacement prime minister (her preference would be Jeremy Corbyn) could take office temporarily and secure an Article 50 extension before calling an election.

Set aside the fact that there would be no obligation, under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, for Johnson to resign immediately even if he were to lose such a vote. His preference, we must assume, would be to remain in office for the statutory two weeks mandated by law, before accepting he cannot, after all, put together a new government, then going to the country in the election that must follow after that time.

But let’s assume that Sturgeon’s master plan works and Corbyn becomes prime minister and leader of a Labour minority government – supported by SNP votes –committed to stopping Brexit. Such an arrangement would be aimed at achieving one thing and one thing only: another delay in Brexit. But it’s surely inevitable that the price Corbyn would have to pay for his days-long tenure in Downing Street would be another independence referendum.

If that’s the price Sturgeon demands, it will go down badly with the rest of the inaccurately named “rebel alliance” of anti-Brexit forces in the Commons and would cut across the ostensible point of the temporary arrangement. Surely that prospect would encourage not only the Lib Dems but also rebel Tories and a fair few Labour MPs to think twice?

Even if she doesn’t make that demand, how will that go down with her impatient troops back home in Scotland?

And how do we think the replacement of a Tory government that is still, according to just about any poll, significantly more popular with voters than Labour, would go down in large parts of England? How would the ensuing election play out for Labour candidates who would try to insist that the next Labour government would not be at the beck and call of the Scottish nationalists?

In 2015, the Tories’ strategy of highlighting English voters’ fears of Ed Miliband being manipulated by Sturgeon was successful enough to give David Cameron an unexpected overall majority. Voters in Telford, Plymouth and Derby rejected Labour out of fear that a Labour government would cave into demands that Scotland’s interests would be put before England’s.

How much more effective would that tactic be second time around when the Labour prime minister had effectively been placed in Number 10 by the SNP?

Sturgeon’s latest intervention gives her some of what she craves: attention and influence. It’s unlikely to give her much more. The danger for her is that if she’s too successful, she might harm the Labour brand so much that she will end up not only with a Brexit negotiated by a re-elected majority Conservative government, but with a prime minister emboldened to refuse her repeated requests for a second independence referendum.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and the author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'