Cast your mind back to the beginning of this year. Since becoming Prime Minister in the unexpected summer of 2016, Theresa May has been thinking, of course, about the next election. There are two issues, she knows, that are going to be uppermost in the minds of the British electorate, whenever that next election is. One is going to be Brexit…no matter what else is going on, the general Election after the Brexit referendum is going to be about the deal that she negotiates for the qualified disengagement of the British Law and economy from what has been holding it together for the last forty years. And the other, associated issue is the leadership of the country that she has assumed after the posh boys had pissed all over it and run away.
And there is absolutely nothing she can see about an early election that can possibly go wrong. The Labour opposition have been supine and incompetent. Article 50 has gone through with barely a sniff of a hitch. The opposition leader is an impossible gift to the formidable Tory election machine. The press and even the Parliamentary Labour Party are uniformly and contemptuously dismissive of the hapless, hopeless, unelectable Mr Corbyn.
What can possibly go wrong?
Now do the same memory and imagination exercise for Nicola Sturgeon just a few months ago. Her decision is slightly different. In response to the triggering of Article 50, does she announce the intention of a second independence referendum or not? Part of the calculation for her is that this second plebiscite to be held sometime in the future – she doubts very much if it will be on the announced two year schedule for Brexit – is that it will combine not only the national question, but also the Brexit question. It will be a specifically Scottish verdict on what will almost certainly be a deeply tiresome car wreck of a negotiation process towards an outcome which is hugely demonstrably worse than even the 62% of Scots who voted against it in 2016 thought it would be. The Prime Minister has said that there won’t be another election until after the process is finished, so why not pre-empt that 2020 election with the THREAT, the bargaining chip, not necessarily to be played, of a second referendum on Independence. There will be a short term hit in the polls, an irritation with the prospect…but it’s not NOW…the electoral heat won’t be on the SNP for at least two years.
What can possibly go wrong?
Well, we don’t yet know the verdict of the electorate. What we do know is that a good sized portion of the electors seem to be demonstrably pissed off with both incumbents. Leaving aside the entirely unpredictable reversal in the predicted political performances of the leaders of the British parties, the unhappiness of the public with this election being so cynically called in the first place is surely the roots of what has indeed gone a bit pear shaped for Mrs May, whose anticipated landslide has been transformed, like the Better Together campaign, from a Dead Certainty into a Narrow Squeak at best.
What has happened to Nicola Sturgeon is that a threatened Indy Ref – which was predicated on the Prime Minister not lying about there being no election till 2020 – has been transformed from an Ace in the Hole to a Millstone around the neck of a General Election Campaign that in Scotland has not only NOT been about Brexit but has not, in any meaningful way, been about an election to Westminster either. What we have actually been going through for the past few weeks has actually BEEN the second referendum campaign that absolutely nobody wanted to happen right now, and for which Nicola Sturgeon, rather than Theresa May, is getting the blame.
What has been inflicted on the public North and South or the border is a demonstrably meaningless exercise in cack-handed cynicism from which ALL politics is taking a hit. The beneficiaries are the anti Politicians, the Corbynite left …and, paradoxically and ironically, the Scottish Tories who have successfully used the campaign to send “them up there in Holyrood a message”…The message being to fuck off and leave us alone when we’ve got terrorism and Trump and a forthcoming economic and then environmental apocalypse to deal with.
That the anti-politics mood should for the first time encompass the SNP government in Holyrood is probably the only lasting and consequential (and not wholly unwelcome in the long run) change that this whole ridiculous exercise will accomplish. Even if the Tories go so far as to lose their overall majority, the likely result is yet another election in the autumn rather than a “progressive coalition.” If the Tories maintain or slightly increase their majority, as still seems more likely, then the election in 2022 will STILL be, in effect, a Brexit election, a verdict on whatever swamp of malfeasance and resentment they get us into.
In the words of the old joke, in neither 10 Downing Street or Bute House would either incumbent want to start from here. At least Nicola Sturgeon can take some comfort from knowing, unlike Theresa May, that assassins in her own party haven’t already got the knives sharpened for whatever comes next.
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