Nicola Sturgeon has laid down the gauntlet to Boris Johnson over Scottish independence: if the SNP wins, as it inevitably will, in May's Scottish parliamentary elections, a 'legal referendum' should be held. How should the PM respond to the First Minister? The uncomfortable truth for Boris and the Tories is that there may be no good way out of this situation.
Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has so far offered his riposte: the Scottish Tories will boycott the whole thing. As counterattacks go, it’s not without its strategic merits. However, one thing looks set to completely undermine this plan: the weakness of Scottish Labour and the other opposition parties in Scotland. This is something that could make this tough stance backfire on the Tories big time.
We are in the midst of a leadership contest for the next leader of the Scottish Labour party. If you haven’t been paying attention to the whole thing, consider yourself lucky – it’s even more depressing than the last Lib Dem leadership contest, which is really scraping the barrel on downbeat UK political battles. The two candidates are Anas Sarwar and Monica Lennon. The latter is a young politician who has only been an MSP since the last Holyrood election. Her most notable act since coming into the Scottish parliament in 2016 has been when she defied the party whip to abstain on a bill the SNP put forth in favour of another independence referendum.
She is there partly to make it a contest so that Sarwar doesn’t get a coronation, partly as a representative of the left of Labour. Lennon has no chance; Sarwar will win. So what to say about the man who will be the next person to try and rescue Scottish Labour?
Several years ago, back when Labour in Scotland was still a real thing, I saw him speak at a Fabians event in Westminster. It was a terrible speech; notably, memorably bad in its utter awfulness. I was asked by a young Fabian volunteer afterwards what I thought of it; when I couldn’t bring myself to even pretend, he smiled and said: ‘Well, at least Anas Sarwar isn’t the future of Scottish Labour politics’. And here we are now.
So what does all this have to do with the future of the Union? The reality is that whatever Boris Johnson and Douglas Ross do in response to the SNP's demands, their plans have one crucial weakness: Scottish Labour.
When Sarwar inevitably wins, Scottish Labour will count for even less than it does now. Whatever you think of Sturgeon, she is a formidable politician. The same cannot be said for Sarwar. This means that the narrative in the coming fight over indyref 2 will pit the Tories vs the SNP.
For Sturgeon, this is good news. The perfect scenario (other than Boris granting another vote) is for her to be able to present herself as the figure who is trying to save Scotland from the horrors of a Conservative party until the aegis of Boris Johnson. Sturgeon knows this is her best shot at winning a referendum, whatever terms it is held under, and whenever it might happen. Douglas Ross and his Tories marching in as the only political force in Scotland standing against the whole idea would be ideal for the SNP.
As for Labour, they have shown how terrified they are of the independence issue since at least 2015, when the SNP all but wiped them out at Westminster level. Scottish Labour have since demonstrated all the hallmarks of laying down their guns and hoping the Scottish left don’t hate them even more than they already do. Starmer can try and order his Scottish troops to stand against another independence referendum from London all he likes; what he might end up with is a full-blown rebellion in Scotland on his hands, as Scottish Labour try and minimise further damage, and realistically look towards the function they might serve in an independent Scotland. In this situation, it is very unlikely Scottish Labour would lend the Tories a helping hand in a row about another vote.
The Lib Dems, too, would be unlikely to want to offer any cover to the Tories over the vote. And you can count the Greens out: they are effectively an even more left-wing version of the SNP when it comes to the independence question.
So the painful truth is that Boris is damned if he does hold a vote (which the SNP could well win); and damned if he refuses one, because in doing so it will feed into the narrative Sturgeon wants to present: of Westminster Tories refusing to listen to those north of the border. The decline and fall of Scottish Labour is bad news for Labour's hopes of winning another election. And it's also bad news for the Tories in their bid to save the Union.