By Alasdair Galloway
According to Fraser Nelson in the Telegraph (5th March) Johnson and team are gearing up for an early(ish) election – May 2023 to be specific, so not that early but before his term hits the normal five years at the end of 2024.
Nelson’s evidence for this is twofold. First there is the significant, continuing and until recently expanding lead the Tories have over Labour in the polls, suggesting the same sort of majority or even more.
Secondly there is Rishi Sunak’s budget, which, according to Nelson, could be summarised as “spend now, pay nothing until 2023”. Nelson suggests that until 2023 what people will experience is “an economic boom” (or at least the economy climbing back to where it was in March 2020) “and retail therapy” as the great British public spend all that money burning a hole in their pockets from holidays not taken, and that you can only spend so much downloading videos and on Uber Eats. Sunak’s hope is that if we really go at it (and the economy is forecast to grow by 7.3% this year), consumer spending increases so much (and along with it government revenue) that large tax rises won’t be necessary. But if they are, then they are postponed till after May 2023.
Indeed, Nelson also suggests that if things don’t go quite to plan – we don’t spend enough, the economy doesn’t bounce back as hoped – then it might be that they cannot afford to hold the election as late as May 2023 (so perhaps the second half of next year?).
Secondly, and also in the Telegraph but in June, Michael Gove is quoted as claiming that Johnson will not permit a second Scottish referendum before the next UK election (in 22 or 23 if Nelson is correct). Why not? Well, the obvious reason, which surprisingly goes unmentioned in Gove’s analysis, is that with support in Scotland pretty much split down the middle, but having been as high as 58%, there is a pretty good chance they would lose. Does Boris want to go down in History as the man who not only took the UK out of Europe, but also was PM when the UK was lost (rather like Lord North and the US)? I wouldn’t have thought so either.
Linked to this are the frequent stories that Boris isn’t all that enamoured of being Prime Minister. It doesn’t pay enough (salary £161,866), he feels and demands too much of his attention, so have an election in May 2023, winning the same sort of majority (or more) and resign a few months later to spend more time with his young (and no doubt expanding) family (and make the sort of money writing for such as the Telegraph that he became used to).
So how do they get there? Professor Curtice has ventured the opinion that “not until Covid is over” is a reason for refusing a referendum that will “wash away” as the pandemic subsides. However, I am afraid the learned Prof seems to fail to appreciate that the end of the pandemic is not only a medical, or public health, judgement but an economic one as well. If we adopt an economic perspective the “end of the pandemic” could be a very long time in coming – certainly longer than with a medical judgement. Consider for instance that in the sense of paying off all the debts from WW2, that didn’t end till we paid the last of our monetary debts to the US, sometime when Gordon Brown was Chancellor.
Moreover, what do the Tories have to lose in Scotland? Douglas Ross? Alister Jack? David Mundell and a couple of others? It’s hardly a huge investment, is it? And of course, as I have little doubt that creating Great Britain and relegating the partner nations to regional status is a serious project for the Johnson gang, that the hope must be as we Scots learn to be British again, and to even love the Union flag, that support for independence will diminish and with it support for another referendum.
But what about that election whenever it is? From the noises coming from the Labour Party there is zero chance of them going to the country with another Scottish referendum as part of their manifesto. There is some pressure to reconsider the nature of the Union – Mark Drakeford is very strong on this, suggesting something more like a Confederation, though that may be an understandable reaction to having to work with Johnson and his cronies? Perhaps they will propose a Committee of Experts (or a Royal Commission as they more commonly known) to satisfy some, but kick the ball firmly down the road.
Last week, in an interview with the Daily Record, Starmer was quoted as saying “on the constitution, going into the Scottish election and since the election, we’ve been absolutely clear that the focus right now is on the recovery and on the climate challenge”. So, no deal there.
Moreover, the electoral forecasts for Labour under Starmer are by no means good. However, just to make sure, the Tories propose the old tactic, used to particular effect against Miliband in 2015, of pinning the proposition on him that, in order to get to Downing Street, he will enter into an electoral pact with the SNP, which, no matter the perception of Sturgeon in England, will be a vote loser for Labour. Whether such an arrangement is real, has any basis in fact whatsoever, really doesn’t matter. What matters is what people think.
Therefore, where Labour are concerned, they are not going to be supportive of another referendum, even if they do get to power, which seems unlikely any time soon. It is said that a good electoral outcome would be to half Johnson’s current majority.
So where does this leave us? Well perhaps an election as early as the second half of next year (in not much more than 12 months) or more likely May 2023, which the Tories will very likely win. After this Johnson retires to spend time his family (or something like that!).
It’s a bit early to speculate about a successor – probably Gove, maybe Sunak, or perhaps (may the Lord have mercy on our souls) Patel – but how much does it really matter? If you have the name of a senior Conservative Party politician who would support a second referendum, please send me this. I really cannot imagine any Prime Minister who is going to volunteer to be the man/ woman who was responsible for dismantling the UK.
In that case, where does this leave the Scottish Government/ SNP? Sturgeon has tied her colours to the mast of a referendum agreed with Westminster, as this is “the gold standard”. Great, but what if Westminster says post their General Election, that another mandate at a Scottish election is necessary, which of course won’t happen till 2025. Much will be made then of another failure of the SNP to win a majority on their own, even though the voting system is oriented toward no party ever winning a majority, and even though with Green MSPs and any Alba members elected, it is not an unreasonable expectation that there will be a majority of independence supporting MSPs elected, and even if we have had another four years of being softened up to accept Great Britain.
I actually have some sympathy for Sturgeon’s position. She understands – as too many don’t – that at some point we will have to engage with Westminster, or the international community is going to stand back and let things unwind. There needs to be, at some point, agreement with Westminster and with the international community.
That said, it is clear increasingly that there will be no referendum without it being wrested from the hands of Westminster. Certainly, one thing that should be done is to campaign for the proposition that Scotland can be and should be independent, in order to increase support through the 50s and up toward 60%. In fact this should have been happening since 20154, even if, as it has, it will attract the “get back to the day job” whine. One way to address this, as well as engaging closely with the wider Yes movement, is to put some real heft behind Mike Russell and his people (he does have people?) in the SNP. In other words to separate government from campaigning for independence – or does that not appeal to the control freaks in the party?
However, I doubt if this alone will be enough. As above the Tories have so little invested in Scotland that if they lose a few MPs, they could well gain more in England. For them, it really doesn’t matter. They have so little to lose.
This folks, is where you and I come in. If the proposition that another referendum is not just for the asking but will have to be forced from Westminster, then it is hard to see how this could be done by the political class acting alone – it will involve that part of the Scottish community which supports independence.