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8 November 2019

Is Nicola Sturgeon helping the Conservatives?

The SNP leader’s willingness to discuss supporting a minority Corbyn administration could help reinforce the Conservative message on both sides of the border.

By Patrick Maguire

Allies of Jeremy Corbyn have always been confident that he stands a decent chance of forming a minority government in a hung parliament – even if Labour finishes some distance behind the Conservatives in terms of seats. 

Why? It has always been the case that Labour is better placed to attract the support of other opposition parties than the Tories. With the exception of the DUP, all of the smaller parties likely to be returned to parliament at the next election situate themselves on what can broadly be defined as the progressive left.

The biggest bloc of all, of course, will be the SNP, who on a good night hope to replicate – or at least come close to – the record haul of 56 out of 59 seats they won at the 2015 election (a scenario that YouGov’s latest poll, which puts the nationalists on 42 per cent of the vote, suggests is likely). 

Their brute numerical strength is likely to make them kingmakers in the event of a hung parliament, which inevitably raises the question of to whom they would lend their support. Given the not inconsiderable overlap between their politics, it has always seemed likeliest that Nicola Sturgeon would do a deal with Corbyn. 

But, at Westminster, another question is intermittently considered: could they ever support a minority Tory administration in exchange for a second referendum on independence? Speaking to Sky News this morning, Sturgeon stressed that the answer was a categorical no, and that she would instead seek a progressive alliance to lock the Conservatives out of government. In a later interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, she added that she could “never put Boris Johnson in Downing Street” and raised the possibility of supporting a Corbyn administration on an issue-by-issue basis. 

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Unsurprising, perhaps: Johnson, after all, has pledged not to grant Sturgeon another referendum even in the event that the SNP wins a majority at the next Holyrood election in 2021. The nationalists also bear the scar of a catastrophic general election in 1979, the last time they were perceived to have put a Tory prime minister (Margaret Thatcher) in office. But the First Minister’s comments nonetheless highlight just how tricky the arithmetic of the Commons could easily become for Johnson. 

That said, Tory candidates – particularly in Scotland – will be delighted that Sturgeon is openly discussing supporting a Corbyn government, given that the price for doing so would almost certainly be a second independence referendum. It’s on those terms that they are desperate to fight this election.

In England, meanwhile, the Tory line is that a Labour government would mean another Brexit referendum – and yet more political wrangling over Europe. While the SNP won’t help them in a hung parliament, the Conservatives are confident they will help them avoid one. 

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