Scottish politics has one iron law at the moment: any party caught facilitating Tory success faces utter ruin.
This was Labour’s experience during the independence referendum. The party’s decision to campaign alongside the Conservatives in defence of the Union shattered its credibility in once rock-solid urban constituencies. Now Labour is heading for a rout of biblical proportions on 7 May, as the SNP soaks-up the bulk of Scotland’s sizeable left-of-centre, anti-Tory vote.
For this reason above others, I’m sceptical of the Daily Telegraph’s “bombshell” story this morning.
The Telegraph claims to have a copy of a memo written – take a deep breath – by a British government official based on a conversation he/she had with the French Consul General based on a conversation he had with the French ambassador based on a conversation she had, in February, with SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon.
In that conversation, Sturgeon is alleged to have told the ambassador that she wanted David Cameron to be re-elected as Prime Minister because she didn’t see Ed Miliband as “prime ministerial material”.
The story itself suffers from some basic technical difficulties. The SNP has categorically denied it. The French Consul General has categorically denied it. The author of the memo expresses doubt about the central claim. The Telegraph failed to contact any of the relevant parties for reaction or comment before publishing – a telltale sign that a journalist lacks confidence in his or her supposed newsline.
But it’s the premise of the allegation that I find most problematic.
Since the referendum, a consensus has developed among political commentators that, despite its public stance against the Tories, the SNP is actually very keen on another five years of Tory government. According to this theory, another English Tory administration hell-bent on austerity and Brexit would boost support for a second independence poll.
However, a second independence poll will only happen if the SNP has the numbers at Holyrood – the “mandate” – to legitimately demand one. Post-Edinburgh Agreement, this has become a bedrock SNP belief. The party views Holyrood as the seat of Scottish political authority and the source of any future referendum – and, again, that referendum depends on the SNP remaining the largest party in the Scottish Parliament.
Now, I can think of no better way for the SNP to commit Labour-style Hari Kari in Scotland than by enabling – indeed by actively willing – the Tories back into power at Westminster. It would immediately destroy their current, treasured status as the party best equipped to defend and promote Scotland’s interests. It would vindicate everything Jim Murphy has said about SNP strategy since he became Scottish Labour leader. Above all, it would shred, in an instant, the SNP’s long-cultivated anti-Tory credentials, thus violating the iron law of Scottish politics.
And there is an attractive alternative for the SNP, too.
Nicola Sturgeon can make Labour redundant at the Scottish level by extracting concessions on devolution and austerity from a weak Labour government at the UK level.
Why vote for Labour in Scotland, at either Westminster or Holyrood, when a more robust, effective and ambitious political surrogate exists in the form of the Scottish nationalists?
Moreover, if the last layer of Labour control in Scotland – its phalanx of 40 MPs – falls, would it really be harder for the SNP to win a future referendum under a red UK government that it would under a blue one? I doubt it. The Labour Party is the lynchpin of unionism in Scotland – if it goes, so to, eventually, does the Union.
So it’s not just the technical veracity of the Telegraph’s “devastating” memo that looks shaky this morning. It’s the working assumption of the UK commentariat. The SNP doesn’t want Cameron re-elected. If it did, it would deserve to share Scottish Labour’s fate – and the Scottish electorate would duly oblige.