Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander, both once talked of as future leaders, are facing the end of their careers in May. (Photo:Getty)
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"You cannot fight an idea": Why Labour is increasingly bleak about its prospects in Scotland

The latest polls show that nothing is changing in Scotland, and why would they? 

No news is good news - if you're the SNP, that is. And the latest poll from Scotland shows very little change at all - the SNP still top of the heap on 46 per cent, Labour a distant second on 27 per cent, the Conservatives in third place on 18 per cent and the also-rans knocking around in the low single digits. Small wonder that our sister site, May 2015 projects the SNP to take all but one of Labour's 41 seats in Scotland. 

It may be worse for Labour than even the headline figures suggest.  The polls fluctuate a little, but effectively what it reveals is that public opinion in Scotland remains where it was: 45 per cent for independence and 55 per cent against. That vote share - 45 per cent - is obviously insufficient in a referendum but devastating to Labour under first past the post (and little better in the D'Hondt system favoured at the elections to the devolved parliament). "You cannot fight an idea," as one shadow Cabinet minister is fond of saying, "Except with a better idea." Fairly or unfairly, Labour in Scotland, like in England and Wales, is seen as having little in the way of fresh ideas. 

But it seems unlikely that a change at the top, either in Scotland or the United Kingdom as a whole, is unlikely to benefit Labour. The polling suggests that not only do the SNP's supporters want to live in another country - increasingly as far as their opinions are concerned, they already do. Take Jim Murphy's approval ratings, not stellar but around the David Cameron mark at -10% in the latest publically avaialble poll. But that conceals strong ratings among Labour voters (+55 per cent), Liberal voters (+13 per cent) and Conservatives (+ 5 per cent). (To give you an idea of how good those are, Cameron is at -71 per cent with Labour voters in the rest of the UK.)

But among SNP supporters Murphy's polling is terrible, at -54 per cent. And just as Ukip voters split from the country at large on issues ranging from the large - they are more likely to believe that they will see the apocalypse in their own lifetimes - to the small - they believe that Sean Bean should play Nigel Farage in a movie, while everyone else favours Rowan Atkinson - SNP voters have broken away from all other voters. I'm told that there will be detailed polling on the impact of the Scottish goverment's review of government expenditure and revenue (GERS) soon. The government's figures are fairly devastating for the case for independence, but in private sampling and on the doorstep, as with public polling on the oil price, the SNP's supporters are reaching radically different conclusions than the supporters of the Unionist parties. 

It seems likely that there is no policy offer that can pull away a significant chunk of that 45% that is currently allowing the SNP to sweep all before it. Labour's woes still have a way left to run.

(I've notably avoided the Greens because the polling evidence is so scarce. Both Labour and Green campaigners in Scotland report that the boost in that party's standing seems to have less to do with independence - "that RIC-SSP-Trot block, it's joined the SNP not the Greens" in the words of one - and more to do with the overall Green surge. But with no public opinion polling specifically on the Greens and seemingly little private data either it's really all supposition.) 

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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Why there's never been a worse year to leave the EU than 2017

A series of elections will mean Britain's Brexit deal will be on the backburner until at least January 2018. 

So that's it. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, and begun Britain’s formal exit from the European Union.

Britain and the EU27 have two years to make a deal or Britain will crash out without a deal. There are two ways out of that – firstly, it's possible that Britain could withdraw its invocation of Article 50, though the European Court of Justice has yet to rule on whether Article 50 is reversible or not. 

But if the government reaches the end of the two-year window, the timetable can only be extended with the unanimous agreement of not only the heads of the 27 other member states of the European Union, but the United Kingdom as well. Although both sides would suffer economic damage from an unplanned exit, no-one has done particularly well betting on economic self-interest as far as either Britain or the European Union in general is concerned, let alone when the two’s relationship with another is the subject.

For May in particular, the politics of extending the timetable are fraught. Downing Street wants Brexit done and dusted by 2019 to prevent it becoming a destabilising issue in the 2020 election, and in any case, any extension would provoke ructions in the Conservative Party and the pro-Brexit press.

But the chances that the EU27 and the UK will not come to an agreement at all, particularly by March 2019, are high. Why? In a stroke of misfortune for Britain, 2017 is very probably the worst year in decades to try to leave the European Union. Not just because of the various threats outside the bloc – the election of Donald Trump and the growing assertiveness of Russia – but because of the electoral turmoil inside of it.

May will trigger Article 50 at exactly the time that the French political class turns inward completely in the race to pick François Hollande’s successor as President enters its final stretch. Although a new president will be elected by 7 May, politics in that country will then turn to legislative elections in June. That will be particularly acute if, as now looks likely, Emmanuel Macron wins the presidency, as the French Left will be in an advanced state of if not collapse, at least profound transformation. (If, as is possible but not likely, Marine Le Pen is elected President, then that will also throw Britain's Brexit renegotiations off course but that won't matter as much as the European Union will probably collapse.) 

That the Dutch elections saw a better showing for Mark Rutte's Liberals means that he will go into Brexit talks knowing that he will be Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, but Rutte and the Netherlands, close allies of the United Kingdom, will be preoccupied by coalition negotiations, potentially for much of the year.

By the time the new President and the new legislative assembly are in place in France, Germany will enter election mode as Angela Merkel seeks re-election. Although the candidacy of Martin Schulz has transformed the centre-left SPD's poll rating, it has failed to dent Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU bloc significantly and she is still in the box seat to finish first, albeit by a narrow margin. Neither Merkel's Christian Democrats or Schulz's Social Democrats, are keen to continue their increasingly acrimonious coalition, but it still looks likely that there will be no other viable coalition. That means there will be a prolonged and acrimonious period of negotiations before a new governing coalition emerges.

All of which makes it likely that Article 50 discussions will not begin in earnest before January 2018 at the earliest, almost halfway through the time allotted for Britain’s exit talks. And that could be further delayed if either the Italian elections or the Italian banking sector causes a political crisis in the Eurozone.

All of which means that May's chances of a good Brexit deal are significantly smaller than they would be had she waited until after the German elections to trigger Article 50. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.