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The SNP think Theresa May just gave their independence plans a big boost

The PM told Scotland it couldn't veto Brexit. 

Theresa May has given one nod to George Osborne, the chancellor she vanquished upon moving into Downing Street, this week.

Osborne kickstarted support for Scottish independence when he bowled into Edinburgh at the start of 2014 and told Scots they would not be sharing sterling.

The effect, as with Mrs May’s unequivocal statement in her speech on Sunday that Scotland would have neither a veto nor an opt out when it comes to Brexit, was to enthuse nationalists and infuriate those thinking of supporting separation. From that point on support for a Yes vote in that year’s independence referendum started ticking up.

And the SNP are hoping May’s clumsy announcement will have the same effect.

As a senior SNP MP told me: “George Osborne thought he’d kill off the independence debate with his intervention. Instead Scots said ‘Screw you, we’re not going to be pushed around.' It’s going to happen again.

“Let’s face it Theresa May and Philip Hammond have never shown much aptitude for Scottish politics.”

That is no doubt a reference to the anonymous Secretary of State who contradicted Osborne just a few weeks after his Edinburgh address, by claiming that there would be a currency union in the event of independence. Hammond was defence secretary at the time.  

Publicly the SNP are inevitably angry at what some claim is a betrayal. Following her first meeting with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon back in July, the PM: “I won't be triggering Article 50 until I think that we have a UK approach and objectives for negotiations - I think it is important that we establish that before we trigger Article 50." As a senior party source told me: “So that turned out to be bullshit.”

Privately and strategically, though, the party is more relaxed.

If Theresa May thinks she can put pressure on the First Minister with such statements, and force Sturgeon to go for an early referendum she’s gravely mistaken.

Sturgeon will not call a referendum she might lose. One thing she has in common with the Prime Minister is that both of their predecessors got bounced into just a scenario and paid the price. The granite-tough FM can resist pressure from Westminster, and she will. Sources close to the SNP leadership told me they are convinced Brexit will have a bad impact on the economy. While not welcoming the effect it will have on ordinary people, they believe it makes the case for independence a simpler sell. The option is no longer between continuity and competence on the one hand, and chance on the other, but a choice between two equally uncertain futures.

The smart money’s still on a second independence referendum in late 2018 or early 2019, as both the Brexit deal and its impact are revealed.

The problems for Sturgeon arise not from pressure from above, but the foundations upon which she depends.

According to Wings Over Scotland, the controversial independence cheerleader, May’s statement that the UK had voted and will negotiate and Brexit as one nation is “as good as it gets” for supporters of independence.

And there’s the rub. Those desperate for separation as soon as possible make up a goodly chunk of the 100,000 members who have joined the SNP in the last two years. After May's Sunday speech, they are straining at the leash.

What’s red meat for Tory activists is red meat to hardcore independence supporters too.

There has to be question marks over how long they will listen to Sturgeon’s soothing tones urging them to hold off until the right moment.

Next week the SNP elects a new deputy leader. If Sturgeon is handed Tommy Shepherd as her number two, and there are plenty in the party worried that that will happen, he’ll be put there by the votes of impatient members in a clear rejection of the managerialism and gradualism that have served the SNP so well so far.

Sturgeon is just the latest leader to have to juggle the differing demands of party members, and the members of the public who will have the final say at the ballot box.

For Scotland remains divided. Nearly two in five voted to leave the EU (including some 2014 Yes voters and it’s anybody’s bet how they’ll fall if forced to choose between the UK union or the European Union). A similar proportion will vote Yes to independence, come what may. It’s the bit in the middle that’s up for grabs.

Essentially Sturgeon’s relying not on the case for independence becoming more compelling, but on the case for the union deteriorating.

The SNP hope is that May is trying to flush her out now, because she fears the Westminster case for economic competence may go down the pan in the face of Brexit.


How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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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