If a week is a long time in politics, sometimes 24 hours can give it a serious run for its money. Consider that precise period in the life of Scotland’s First Minister the evening before the Scottish budget was about to be presented by her then popular finance secretary, Derek Mackay Instead, a call from the Scottish editor of The Sun detonated a scandal which saw Mackay’s once stellar career implode as Nicola Sturgeon was advised of his serial texts to a 16 year old schoolboy. It is alleged that The Sun- no friend of the SNP though it once had a brief flirtation - sat on their scoop for a week, waiting for the moment of optimum embarrassment.
One can only imagine the frantic backstage re-organisation in the following hours, before the public finance minister, the young Highland MSP Kate Forbes, delivered the budget statement and Nicola Sturgeon confirmed she had been offered and accepted Mackay’s resignation. By general agreement, Forbes made an assured fist of her temporary promotion, but it must all have left Sturgeon wondering why party leaders are prevented from having duvet days.
Her deputy and education minister had just announced an independent review of attainment shortfalls, her health secretary was juggling high profile problems in several new hospitals, and one of her erstwhile economic advisors, the entrepreneur Jim McCall, was engaged in a slanging match with a government agency over a botched ferry contract. And, waiting to arrive centre stage in the courts, was a case of alleged sexual misconduct involving her predecessor Alex Salmond, charges which he robustly denies, but which will inevitably preoccupy the media next month
As the blows rained in, she could have been forgiven for pondering if the locust plague rampaging through East Africa was planning to overwinter in Scotland. And yet, and yet. Despite the next Scottish elections being barely more than a year away, there are reasons why none of these issues will necessarily defenestrate an administration coming up for its 14th year in office. The main one is the paucity of a credible alternative. The Scottish Labour Party, once master of all it surveyed, shed an astonishing 41 seats in the 2015 election when the SNP won 56 of the 59 constituencies.
Although the Nationalists subsequently lost 21 of those in 2017, by the time of the 2019 election, Labour had reverted to having just a solitary Scottish MP, the deputy leadership hopeful Ian Murray, while the SNP, currently polling at 50% was back up to 47. In December, the Scottish Tories lost half its seats, and the Liberal Democrats found itself decapitated as its new national leader lost her seat in Dunbartonshire. That arithmetic will still be in place in May 2021, though the rumour factory is already wondering whether a newly ennobled Ruth Davidson will come back to lead her tartan flock from the Lords. And whether the Mackay debacle will occasion a by election.
Counter intuitively, the greatest dangers facing Nicola Sturgeon may come from within her own ranks. Her pitch for a new independence referendum is based on her manifesto commitment to call for one if circumstances have materially changed since 2014, “such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will.” Since Scotland voted 62 per cent Remain, she is confident that trumps any “once in a generation” argument advanced by Boris Johnson. She is convinced that only a legally binding mark two referendum, with the underpinning of Westminster granting the necessary order, will allow international recognition of the result, whilst avoiding widespread unionist abstention.
But it’s a softly, softly approach which has frustrated many of her own activists, who see little prospect of the Prime Minister having a Damascene conversion – not least since he is now the self appointed Minister for the Union. Her critics would like her to test the matter of who calls which shots in the courts. They mutter too that the Scottish government, and cabinet, are too tightly controlled by the First Minister and her husband Peter Murrell, the Party’s chief executive.
For the want of another official referendum, many people would like to regard the 2021 Scottish election as a de facto one. Some in Scottish Labour, even some within Scottish Conservative ranks, think it would be a denial of simple democracy if a Scottish government and a majority of the electorate were in favour of another poll on self determination and Downing Street blocked it.
The stakes are high risk, however. The proportional Scottish voting system was constructed to militate against any party gaining an outright majority. The SNP are currently a minority administration reliant on the Independence supporting Greens. Were 2021 to alter that arrangement, the game might be a bogey., as they say in Glasgow And instead of gaining independence, Scotland might well find its existing parliamentary powers continually diluted by a Johnson/Gove combo.