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Could Keir govern without the SNP? There’s just a chance thanks, er, to the SNP 

The run up to the 2024 general election, if calamity Truss makes it that long, is going to be dominated by one question: can Keir Starmer win an absolute majority or will it have to do a deal with Nicola Sturgeon? The SNP currently commands 48 seats and is the third force in UK politics. Forget Labour’s 17% lead in one opinion poll, no one in Liverpool is naïve enough to believe that this reflects the true state of play. 

On the face of it, an outright Labour majority looks like a hopeless dream. In 2019 the party went down to its worst defeat since 1935. It would break all the laws of politics for it to recover sufficiently in one parliament to govern alone. And while Corbynism is history, Labour is still held in some suspicion by many English voters. 

As in 2015, 2017 and 2019, the Tories’ best way to exploit this suspicion is by playing the Scottish card. Raising the spectre of Nicola Sturgeon calling the shots in a Westminster governing coalition. Those pictures of Ed Miliband in Nicola Sturgeon’s top pocket, a visual paraphrase of the Spitting Image puppet of the former Liberal leader David Steel in David Owen’s pocket, were devastating in 2015. As was the billboard image of a grinning Alex Salmond picking the pocket of English voters. 

Sir Keir has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent the Tories labelling him as Sturgeon’s little helper. He has wrapped himself in the Union Flag, got the Labour conference to give a plausible rendition of God Save the King and declared Labour the party of “sound money”. He has not only backed Brexit, infuriating the SNP, but also ruled out Labour taking the UK back into the Single Market or restoring free movement. The SNP are once again calling Labour the ‘Red Tories’ and claiming Starmer has sold out to English nationalism and Brexit austerity. 

No matter. The Tories, who of course like to think they own the Union flag, will still claim that, no matter what he says now, the lure of power will force Keir Starmer to do some kind of backroom deal with the SNP after the election. The arithmetic demands it. Actually, democracy demands it. If Labour and the SNP can agree a policy agenda, why shouldn’t Starmer form a minority administration with SNP backing on confidence and supply? 

But, no. Starmer cannot recognise the inevitability of post election cooperation with the SNP – though he can and will rule out any early independence referendum. (Whisper it, but that might actually suit Nicola Sturgeon right now but that’s another issue). The prospect of the SNP governing, or even having a decisive say on policy for England is anathema to many English voters. 

But could Labour do without the SNP? As Starmer’s lead consolidates, is there a sliver of a chance that he could win an outright majority and lock out Nicola Sturgeon? I think there is, just. Thanks to one of her extraordinary blunders

First it need hardly be said that Liz Truss is doing her best to destroy the Tory party’s electoral chances. A maxi “mini” budget that managed to rile City financiers and currency traders, even as it cut their taxes, has perhaps confirmed Dominic Cummings’ assessment of the PM as “the human hand grenade”. The Tories arguably discarded the only politician capable of winning next time: Boris Johnson. Partygate aside, he actually had a solid record of achievement in Brexit, Ukraine, vaccine and didn’t try to wreck the economy. 

As for Scotland, the SNP still dominate at every level. In Holyrood and in UK elections they have been returning more elected members the all the unionist parties put together. Labour has only one seat in Scotland against the SNP’s 48. It has always been conventional wisdom that Labour needs Scottish votes to govern in England. And it had them in the not too distant past. 

Indeed, as recently as 2010, Labour returned a total of 41 MPs against the SNP’s 6. Nicola Sturgeon’s domination of Westminster politics is a recent phenomenon. Scotland has Labour values to its bootstraps. They may have translated their affections to the Scottish National Party, but if they could be convinced that only voting Labour would keep the Tories out of power in Westminster they might not be averse to lending their votes back to their old party of choice. 

And Nicola Sturgeon has given them the perfect excuse. The First Minister has rashly called for the 2024 general election to be a “defacto referendum”. She is trying to persuade her supporters that if she wins a majority of votes next time, that will itself constitute a reason for opening independence negotiations with Westminster. 

Even many nationalists are uneasy about this strategy. After all, how can one party dictate what issues people are voting on in any election? It is the height of electoral arrogance, claiming that a Westminster parliamentary election is not about electing a government in Westminster but about breaking up Britain. 

There will be many issues at stake in 2024, possibly including relations with the EU, but the number one issue will be who gets to enter Number Ten. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Scottish voters decide that getting the Tories out is rather more pressing than endorsing the SNP ploy of of independence-by-attribution. 

Moreover, Anas Sarwar, Labour’s new leader in Scotland, has given a pretty good account of himself and is chipping away at the SNP leader’s credibility as a social democrat. The SNP is being forced to impose swinging cuts in local government spending, despite the generous Barnett Formula money, and has been having little success in reforming Scottish education. Labour has scrabbled back to 23% vote share in the recent council elections. 

It’s a very long shot. But maybe, just maybe, Keir Starmer will be able to unite the Unionist vote in Scotland (it hasn’t gone away) with the anti-Tory vote and win 15 or so Scottish seats. Then it might be game on. It is fantasy politics just now, but with a little help from Nicola Sturgeon Labour might just be in with a shout.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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