Louis Staples, The Independent
They say a week is a long time in politics, but for those to the left of centre, this one has been as bleak as it has been long.
Boris Johnson is prime minister and Priti Patel is now the most powerful woman in the UK (with apologies to the Queen). Jacob Rees-Mogg is leader of the House of Commons, Dominic Raab is representing us on the international stage and Esther McVey is in charge of solving the housing crisis. Things have certainly been better.
But there’s one person on the left of centre who’s had a brilliant week: Nicola Sturgeon.
To Scotland’s first minister, Johnson must seem like the biggest political gift of her career. She has already announced plans to hold another independence vote by 2021 if Scotland is taken out of the EU against its will, but following Johnson’s victory, Sturgeon said she may “accelerate” those plans because of her “profound concern” about his premiership. She then used her first letter to the prime minister to call for a new independence vote as an alternative Brexit option.
As Johnson packs his cabinet full of right-wing Brexiteers and battles to keep no-deal Brexit on the table, Sturgeon will have even more ammunition to suggest that Scotland is on a fundamentally different path to the rest of the UK. Even Scots who voted No to independence in 2014, particularly those who voted to remain in the EU, might now be asking themselves if she is right.
Ultimately, the events of this week have been on the horizon for a while. As England has drifted further to the right since 2010, Scotland has gone the other way.
Despite being in government in Scotland since 2005, the SNP continues to poll strongly in both Holyrood and Westminster. Not only did 62 per cent of Scots vote to Remain in the EU in 2016, but in May 2019’s EU elections the party’s pro-EU message saw it hoover up 38 per cent of the Scottish vote – the highest vote share of any party across Europe. The Brexit Party’s political earthquake in England failed to materialise in Scotland, with the party polling just 14 per cent, compared to 32 per cent south of the border.
The ascent of Johnson, an Etonian Brexiteer who embodies a brand of Englishness that practically drips with colonial nostalgia, personifies this growing divide. Johnson’s premiership makes him the face of the rift. His rise allows the SNP to paint these differences as not only political, but cultural too.
The Scottish aversion to Johnson can be seen in polls. When asked how they would vote should Johnson win the Tory leadership, 53 per cent of Scots said they would choose to leave the UK – that represented a potentially decisive 4 point increase from the previous level.It is true that, under the current constitutional framework, the Scottish government needs Westminster’s approval to hold another referendum. But Sturgeon’s canny team of SNP negotiators – responsible for negotiating the Edinburgh Agreement that facilitated Scotland’s 2014 referendum on favourable terms – will likely view the erratic Johnson as an opportunity. With commons arithmetic more risky than ever for the Tories, virtually every decision will be dictated primarily by a survival instinct, and there may be deals to be done. After all, a poll of Tory party members recently showed that 63 per cent would accept Scotland leaving the UK in order to get Brexit over the line.
Sturgeon will also benefit from the long-running discord between Johnson and Scottish conservatives leader Ruth Davidson – her main opposition in Holyrood. Davidson was a staunch Remainer in 2016 and didn’t back Johnson in the Tory leadership contest. She even refused to say that she had confidence in him as foreign secretary. Despite Davidson’s pleas to save her ally David Mundell, who had served as Scotland secretary since 2015, he was sacked by Johnson in favour of Brexiteer Alister Jack. If Johnson was looking to keep the peace with Davidson, keeping Mundell was his opportunity. Sturgeon will waste no time exploiting this rift.
Sturgeon’s good week doesn’t stop with the Tories. The SNP will see the arrival of East Dunbartonshire MP Jo Swinson as Liberal Democrat leader as an opportunity too. Swinson lost her seat in 2015, when the SNP won 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats. She won it back in 2017, but her majority is just 4500 – the lowest of Westminster’s main party leaders. With polls projecting that a resurgent SNP could win back most of the seats they lost in 2017, the party will view Swinson as a major target if an election is called.Swinson’s party might be resurgent in England, but in Scotland they polled just 14 per cent in the May’s EU election. A Scottish leader might provide a boost, but Swinson will likely face pressure for supporting a re-run of 2016’s EU referendum, while opposing a re-run of 2014’s Scottish independence referendum. Again, Sturgeon will be well prepared to exploit this.
And there’s more. A new YouGov poll revealed that four in 10 Scottish Labour supporters now support independence. This makes Scottish independence an even more tricky issue for Scottish Labour than Brexit is for the party’s Westminster HQ. Sturgeon will hope the party’s vague approach to Brexit, at odds with most of its members and voters, will be replicated above the border.
As Johnson answered questions in the House of Commons for the first time as PM, the SNP’s leader in Westminster Ian Blackford proclaimed that he will be “the UK’s last prime minister”. We don’t know yet whether Johnson’s government and its Brexit-at-all-costs approach will push Scots away for good, but the SNP must feel their ultimate goal of independence is now closer than ever.
They say a week is a long time in politics, but judging by this one, Sturgeon’s good fortune looks set to last far longer.
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