Sunday, December 16, 2018

Do the Tory Brexiteers care more about Brexit than they do about their own careers?

Reading the front page story in the Sunday Times today, I could for the first time just about start to see a semi-plausible scenario under which a "People's Vote" could take place on Theresa May's watch, leading potentially to the cancellation of Brexit.  If the government's own proposal for a referendum was for a straight choice between May's deal and No Deal, it could be argued that this is not a betrayal of any red line because either outcome would result in Britain leaving the EU.  And then when parliament amends the proposal against the government's wishes to add a Remain option to the ballot paper, May could just shrug her shoulders and say "nothing to do with me, guv".  That wouldn't wash with the ERG - they'd probably end up regarding May as a Ramsay MacDonald-type "traitor".  But we know from past experience that May doesn't fret that much if people can see straight through her, just so long as her excuse sounds defensible in her own head.

The odds are still against it, of course.  It's probably significant that the plan is reported to have the endorsement of "Theresa May's team" rather than May herself, and we know there are also strong forces in the Cabinet tugging her in completely the opposite direction, and towards an acceptance of No Deal.  Even if the plan was to be put into operation, there must at least be a question mark over whether the addition of a Remain option would command a majority in the Commons.  The assumption so far has been that the parliamentary arithmetic on a People's Vote would be very tight, and logically exactly the same ought to apply to any Remain amendment (although perhaps the government conceding the principle of a referendum would embolden more Tory Remainers to rebel).  And having repeatedly promised that Brexit will happen bang on schedule on 29th March, it would be hard for May to call a referendum on her deal knowing that a referendum campaign would eat up much of the remaining three months, and that she'd inevitably have to request an extension of Article 50 simply to have enough time to actually implement the deal if the public gave her the go-ahead.  But perhaps she could put on an indignant voice and blame a short delay on "saboteurs", or whatever.

Then there's the problem that the leaking of a plan like this can in itself make the whole thing less likely to happen.  Brexiteers now know where the danger lies, and May could find herself under intense pressure to explicitly rule out any Deal v No Deal referendum over the coming days.  If it ever looks like something might come of it, though, I do wonder if the hard-core Brexiteers could look towards the nuclear option of approaching Labour and indicating they might vote against the government on a motion of no confidence, or at least abstain.

A lot of people have asked why there would be any problem getting a no confidence motion passed, given that the number of Tory rebels required would be quite small.  The answer is simple - in most parliamentary votes, Tory MPs have the option of voting against the government without facing any terrible consequences, but confidence votes are completely different.  Even a non-authorised abstention on a confidence vote would lead to an automatic withdrawal of the whip, which in turn makes it impossible to stand as a Tory candidate at the next election.  So unless you're someone like Douglas Carswell, with enough of a personal vote that you could hold your seat regardless of party label, you'd be looking at career death.  That was why the Maastricht rebels in the 1990s all instantly fell into line as soon as the government tied the issue to a vote of confidence.  They of course justified it to themselves as a principled decision - Bill Cash said he was damned if he would hand the Maastricht ratification process over to a Labour government who would sign Britain up to a "federal superstate".  And there was a small grain of truth in that  - polling in 1993/4 left little room for doubt that Labour would win a snap election.

No such excuse is available this time, because it's anyone's guess who would come out on top in an election held over the next few weeks.  And in any case, is it just possible that the prospect of Brexit being cancelled is such a big deal for some MPs that they might, just this once, be prepared to put their careers second, and their principles first?

It might not seem immediately obvious what they would have to gain by triggering an election, given that there is so little to choose between May and Corbyn on Brexit.  But in fact there could be a few things -

* With parliament dissolved for several weeks, any attempt to legislate for a referendum could be severely interrupted, with the clock still ticking down towards the 29th March deadline.

* May and the rest of the Tory leadership would be forced to write a manifesto that appeals to the Leave vote that the party is now so heavily reliant on in elections.  They might find themselves making cast-iron promises that Brexit will definitely happen, and that it will happen on time, and that the backstop won't be permanent, etc, etc.  OK, they wouldn't be the first politicians to betray a promise within days or weeks of winning an election, but it's never a comfortable thing to do.

* Any substantial seat gains for the Tories would probably lead to an increase in the number of Leave-supporting MPs in the Commons (although they'd still be in the minority).

* There would be scope for a tactical voting drive, with websites directing Brexiteers towards the candidate in their constituency that is most likely to vote for a 'real' Brexit.  In some cases that will be a Tory, in a very few seats it might be a sitting Labour MP like Kate Hoey, and in others it could be a UKIP or Faragist candidate.  Usually that sort of targeting has only a very marginal effect, but given the passions that Brexit is arousing, it might just be different this time.

*  *  *

Friday, December 14, 2018

Chortle. John McDonnell wants us to believe that the SNP are only calling for a no confidence vote because they don't want a general election.

Two astonishingly silly statements were made the other day about the SNP's motivations in relation to a vote of no confidence in the Tory government.  Labour's Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell claimed that the SNP were only pushing for such a vote to take place so that it would fail, thus ensuring there wouldn't be an early general election, in which Labour would supposedly be breathing down the SNP's necks and poised to make seat gains.  On the other extreme, our dear old friend Mike Smithson, known fondly to thousands of East Dunbartonshire residents as an "impartial election expert", claimed that the SNP would not be planning to vote against the government unless they were very confident that they would hold all of their 35 seats and perhaps make gains.

Two completely contradictory claims, and ironically both wrong.  But which is the daftest of the two?  On this occasion I'd have to say McDonnell just about shades it.  There's something quite exquisitely risible about the claim that the SNP are demanding a vote of no confidence because they don't want a general election.  I know the notion that an election is less likely if you table the motion too soon might seem vaguely plausible to some (and Torcuil Crichton of the Record was predictably credulous about it), but the reality is that a) any no confidence vote is likely to fail regardless of timing, and b) no confidence motions are not a finite resource in any case.  If one fails, it doesn't stop you tabling another later on, and it doesn't prevent the result being different the second time around.  The famous no confidence vote of March 1979 was not the first one that the Callaghan government had faced.

Smithson, of course, is just making his customary mistake of assuming that the SNP have some sort of decision to make on how to vote on a no confidence motion, and that the way they jump will be cynically determined by their own immediate electoral prospects.  It's been pointed out to him umpteen times that it is utterly inconceivable for any left-of-centre party in Scotland to do anything other than vote to bring down a Tory government if the opportunity arises.  But that message just isn't getting through to him, and I suspect it never will.  Can you imagine what would actually happen if the SNP even abstained on a no confidence vote?  It wouldn't just be a problem at the next election, it would haunt the party for decades to come.  No, Mike, that was never an option, and it wouldn't have been an option even if the SNP were at 6% in the polls.

I'm fairly sure that Smithson and McDonnell are both equally wrong about the SNP's expectations for seat gains and losses in a snap election.  The polling average at the moment suggests that the SNP's lead over Labour has increased since June 2017, so it's obviously nonsensical for McDonnell to suggest that the SNP are resigned to losing seats.  But on the other hand, the increase in the lead is not so dramatic that it couldn't be reversed (and indeed more than reversed) if there were the kind of sudden shifts of public opinion during the course of an election campaign that we saw last year.  There are a large number of ultra-marginal seats, some held by Labour, some held by the SNP, meaning that relatively small swings could make the difference between landslide and disaster.  Nobody can possibly say which way it will go on the basis of current polls, or at least not with any confidence.  If the SNP are optimistic about their prospects, I would suggest it's more likely to be because they feel they've cracked the problem of finding a winning campaign strategy.  It may well be (and I'm just speculating) that the recent relentless focus on cancelling Brexit for the whole of the UK has been designed to make the SNP look like the only logical home for Remainers in a 2019 election - and Remainers, let's not forget, make up 62% of the Scottish electorate.  They're in the majority even in Moray (albeit only just).

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

May wins the vote, but loses the narrative

If I was a Brexiteer Tory MP, I think I'd be quietly fuming tonight about the conduct of Sir Graham Brady, who doesn't strike me as being anything like as neutral in his handling of leadership matters as his predecessors.  Every step of the way yesterday and today, he seemed to be acting in collusion with the incumbent leadership and against the rebels.  Downing Street effectively controlled the timing of the announcement that the 48 letter threshold had been met, the timing of the vote itself, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if they also had something to do with the neat little stunt of the overall outcome of the vote being announced before the precise numbers.  That's a totally illogical way of presenting the result of any vote, and presumably was intended to provide the TV news with a self-contained clip depicting Theresa May as an unalloyed victor, with the inconvenient detail that 37% of her own MPs want her gone being hurriedly dispensed with later on as if it was of only academic interest.

It was an attempt to set the narrative, but it quite simply failed.  I was struck by the complete contrast between tonight's proceedings and the aftermath of another Tory leadership challenge many years ago.  In 1995, just like today, people were fairly sure that the incumbent leader would be officially re-elected, but the question was always the margin of victory.  In the end, rather more MPs voted against John Major than had been anticipated, but it didn't matter because the rebels grudgingly acknowledged his mandate after the result had been announced.  The complete opposite happened tonight - the ERG doubled down and demanded that May should resign.  Jacob Rees-Mogg may be a buffoon, but the way he laid down a marker within seconds of the result being revealed was an absolute masterclass.  "The vast majority of non-payroll MPs voted against her" was exactly the angle to take, and it's a point that's very difficult for May loyalists to shut down.  It's impossible for them to argue that May doesn't need the support of backbenchers.  If they try to claim she still has that support, by definition that would have to mean that a substantial number of government ministers secretly voted against her, which would be even worse.

The counter-framing from the May camp was much less convincing than Rees-Mogg's effort.  The pre-prepared line that had obviously been given to everyone was that May's percentage of the vote was higher than when she was elected leader in 2016.  That's a complete nonsense, because she wasn't actually "elected leader" at all.  The members' ballot was called off when Andrea Leadsom withdrew, and May became leader by default.  The contest didn't progress beyond a three-way preliminary ballot of MPs, and nobody would really expect any candidate to get 63% of the vote when they have two opponents.  (Although as it happened she got close.)

The other thing that struck me tonight is that anyone who's been thinking there's a non-trivial chance that a "People's Vote" might somehow take place under Theresa May's watch should just forget that idea.  She has a weak renewed mandate, and it was won largely on the promise that she will "deliver the Brexit people voted for".  She is even more boxed in than she was before, and for however long she remains Prime Minister, a referendum with a "Remain" option is inconceivable.  If the assumption is that she will still be around on March 29th, Remainers should probably switch their focus to securing an extension of Article 50 - because if that doesn't happen, Britain will undoubtedly be leaving the European Union.

*  *  *

Now is the time - but has anyone told Tory MPs?

If nothing else, what today has revealed is just how blatantly the rules for Tory leadership challenges are slanted to help an incumbent leader survive.  We maybe lost sight of that because the same rules were successfully used to topple Iain Duncan Smith in 2003, but he was of course the most hapless Tory leader in post-war history.  Think of how differently things would be playing out under the rules that applied thirty years ago - ie. an automatic annual leadership election in which any MP could stand if they had a proposer and seconder.  We'd be straight into a battle between Boris Johnson and Theresa May (and possibly others) in which the candidates would have parity of esteem, and May's deficiencies would be cruelly exposed.  She'd probably lose.

As it is, she isn't standing against anyone, so the vote today has become a simple matter of loyalty or disloyalty in the leader.  No wonder so few MPs have been willing to stick their heads above the parapet and say publicly that they are voting to remove her.  That has sucked some of the momentum out of the anti-May drive, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the leadership were in effective control of the timetable of the vote, and chose the ultra-quick option so that wavering MPs have no time to think.  The leadership also effectively controlled the timing of the announcement of the vote, allowing for a choreographed 'shock and awe' campaign of endorsements for the PM early this morning.  The TV news dutifully reported all of that, as if Cabinet ministers supporting their own leader was somehow surprising or significant.

On the other hand, we won't know for sure until the result is announced, and secret ballots of Tory MPs do sometimes throw up wild surprises.  Most famous is the 1975 example, in which large numbers of MPs who had publicly endorsed Edward Heath must have quietly voted for Mrs Thatcher.  And in 1997, the scale of William Hague's victory over Kenneth Clarke took everyone by surprise.  We'll see.  Given what happened on the evening of the EU referendum, I would certainly caution everyone not to read too much into the calmness of the financial and betting markets.

*  *  *

Yes, Virginia, a two-year polling high for Yes was worth reporting

Every few weeks, I can't resist logging out of Twitter and doing a search for my name, just to see if the small army of people who I've had to block or have blocked me (mostly RISE types, Brit Nat trolls and a handful of militant anti-indy journalists) are saying anything I should know about.  And I'm so very rarely disappointed.  Last night I found a short exchange between David "IT'S THE RUSSIANS!!!" Leask and the SSP's "online coordinator" Scott Macdonald, during which Scott commented on the recent Panelbase poll putting the Yes vote at 47%...

"I know. And like many of the other respectable polls, within the margin of error of 18th September 2014. That's not news, unless you're Scot Goes Pop."

I presume that can be reasonably interpreted as criticism and/or mockery of my blogpost about the Panelbase poll.  If so, I think it's worth taking a moment just to defend that post, because quite honestly, the idea that this particular poll was not worthy of note is a bit batty.

Let's start with the obvious: Scot Goes Pop is a polling blog.  (Not exclusively, but to a large extent.)  Pretty much any full-scale Scottish poll is worth reporting here, even if it shows no change at all.  Scottish polls aren't exactly ten-a-penny outside election periods, so they always tell us something interesting.

Secondly, Scott is quite wrong to imply that I thought the significance of the poll was a 2% increase in the Yes vote since the 2014 referendum.  In reality, I was much more interested in the fact that 47% is a two-year high for Yes in Panelbase polls, and is significantly better than the recent 'normal range' for Yes reported by Panelbase, which has been around 43-45%.  Here is the sequence of Yes votes in the last ten Panelbase polls -

44 - 45 - 45 - 44 - 43 - 44 - 44 - 44 - 45 - 47

If you don't think the 47 at the end sticks out like a sore thumb, you must be pretty determined not to see it.  Now, of course, it's perfectly possible that support for independence has remained steady at around 44%, in which case the standard margin of error could just about produce a freakish 47% result now and again.  That's one possible explanation, and if it's the correct one it'll become obvious soon enough because the next couple of Panelbase polls would in all likelihood show a reversion to the 43-45% norm.  But there is another very obvious possible explanation - that the jump in support for Yes is either real or partly real.  If an unexpected poll result comes along and raises the possibility that Yes has significantly narrowed the gap, are we really supposed to look away in a state of total disinterest?  Come now.

The third and more general point is that Scott is making a schoolboy error (albeit a very common one) by assuming that because a large number of polls are putting the Yes vote within the margin of error of the 45% vote in 2014, no conclusions at all can possibly be reached about changes in public opinion since the indyref.  This is exactly the same mistake people made when they said that it didn't actually matter that Hillary Clinton was ahead of Donald Trump in the vast majority of polls, because in a lot of those polls her lead was within the margin of error.  (As you'll recall, Clinton went on to win the popular vote by some three million votes.)

Take a glance at the recent run of Yes results in polls from Survation, which unlike Panelbase is not one of the more No-friendly firms...

46 - 47 - 46 - 46 - 47 - 47 - 46 - 45

If looked at individually, then yes, all of those polls are within the margin of error of the 45% vote in 2014.  None of those polls on their own would constitute proof of an increase in the Yes vote since the indyref.  And yet if you look at them collectively, it's entirely right and proper to draw the opposite conclusion.  Seven out of eight of the polls have Yes above 45%, and not a single one has Yes below 45%.  That's an extremely improbable pattern if Yes is supposed to have been flatlining at exactly 45%.  If that had been the case, and if the margin of error was the explanation for Yes sometimes getting as high as 47%, it would be more likely that we'd have seen a rather more even spread of results above and below 45%.  So, if by any chance Survation have their methodology exactly right (and admittedly that's a big if), it can be said with a bit of confidence that the Yes vote has generally been a little higher over the last year or so than it was on referendum day in 2014.

*  *  *

Monday, December 10, 2018

Crisis deepens for Tyrannical Theresa as bombshell Panelbase poll shows support for independence at a two-year high

OK, I admit it, I've obviously been living down a hole today, because I've only just noticed this rather significant new poll, which apparently was published early this morning.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 47% (+2)
No 53% (-2)

So you might remember the SIF-funded Panelbase poll from a few weeks ago, which I was first to publish (a bit of a contrast from today) and which I mentioned was an eighteen-month high for Yes?  Not anymore, it's not.  A further two-point boost has taken Yes well above its recent normal range in Panelbase polls.  47% would not be unusually high if this was a Survation or Ipsos-Mori poll, but Panelbase have over the last couple of years become noted for being firmly on the No-friendly end of the spectrum.  The last time there was a result as good as this in a Panelbase poll was way back in the autumn of 2016.

Of course it's possible that the high Yes vote may just be an illusion caused by sampling variation, although if that was the correct explanation you might expect the poll's sample to be unusually favourable towards the SNP as well, and that isn't really the case.  There's no improvement at all for the SNP on Westminster voting intentions (which will be a disappointment to those who hoped recent YouGov subsamples were the first sign of a breakthrough), and although there's a 2% boost on the Holyrood constituency vote, that simply takes the party back to where they were in the Panelbase poll before last.  It's only on the Holyrood regional list vote that the SNP are clearly doing better than the recent Panelbase norm.

Scottish voting intentions for the next Westminster general election:

SNP 37% (n/c)
Labour 26% (+1)
Conservatives 26% (-2)
Liberal Democrats 6% (-1)

Scottish Parliament constituency ballot:

SNP 41% (+2)
Conservatives 25% (-2)
Labour 23%  (-1)
Liberal Democrats 6% (n/c)

Scottish Parliament regional list ballot:

SNP 38% (+1)
Conservatives 26% (n/c)
Labour 22% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 7% (+1)
Greens 6% (n/c)

Although seats projections from polls need to be taken with a heavy dose of salt, on a uniform swing these figures would give the SNP and Greens 62 Holyrood seats in combination - just 3 short of a majority.  So even if the next Scottish Parliament election was a lot less than two and a half years away, there would still be a fighting chance of retaining the pro-independence majority.

It's not the headline voting intention figures from the Panelbase poll that are making the headlines, though - it's the results of supplementary questions that ask respondents to make a straight choice between independence and two different Brexit scenarios.  Independence is slightly preferred to remaining in Brexit Britain even if there is a negotiated deal (and the wording doesn't specify that the deal has to be Theresa May's deal - it could just as easily mean a better Norway-type deal).  But there is an overwhelming majority in favour of independence if the alternative is a no deal Brexit.  Although we've seen majorities for independence on this type of hypothetical question before, a majority on the scale of 59-41 is unusual.

Do you believe Scottish independence or a no deal Brexit would be better for Scotland?

Scottish independence: 59%
No deal Brexit: 41%

Do you believe Scottish independence or remaining in the UK but outside the EU under a negotiated Brexit deal would be better for Scotland?

Scottish independence: 53%
Remaining in the UK but outside the EU under a negotiated Brexit deal: 47%

The snag, of course, is that the results of hypothetical polling questions can't be regarded as being quite as credible as the results on the standard independence question.  People can very easily overestimate how big an impact a hypothetical event will have on their own voting intention.  We might find that, if and when no deal Brexit becomes the status quo, people's instinctive passivity and small 'c' conservatism will kick in and there won't be much of a boost for Yes at all.  However, it's interesting that people clearly feel that Brexit ought to increase their support for independence, and that might be a point of some significance in the heat of an indyref campaign.

Last but not least, there is a sizeable majority in favour of a snap general election if Theresa May's deal is voted down by the Commons - something that should happen this Tuesday (yikes!), unless the vote is cancelled.

If the Prime Minister fails to secure a majority in a vote in the House of Commons for the Brexit deal, would you favour another general election being held?

Yes: 61%
No: 39%

*  *  *

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Wondrous SNP wangle wizard win in windy Wester Ross

I was up to my neck yesterday, so apologies for being a bit late with this excellent news from the Highlands. In a break from the pattern of the recent past, the SNP have not underperformed expectations in a local council by-election - quite the reverse, in fact.

Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh by-election result (first preferences):

SNP 33.1% (+7.0)
Conservatives 26.0% (+7.6)
Independent - Greene 15.6% (+1.4)
Greens 9.0% (-2.2)
Liberal Democrats 8.0% (-5.4)
Labour 4.4% (-0.7)
Independent - Davis 3.3% (n/a)
UKIP 0.4% (n/a)
Scottish Libertarians 0.2% (n/a)

Technically, this was an SNP gain from the Liberal Democrats, but that's just one of the familiar quirks of the STV system - in fact the SNP topped the poll in the ward last time around, and the Lib Dems trailed in fourth. Nevertheless, by any standards this was a dismal attempt from the Lib Dems at defending the seat - they suffered a net swing to the SNP of more than 6%. We probably shouldn't get as excited about the SNP surge as we would do if it had happened in a central belt ward - there's much more of a tradition in Highlands local politics of electing an individual, rather than a political party. But a splendid result for the SNP is always preferable to the alternative.

*  *  *

Friday, December 7, 2018

Congratulations to the Independent for the silliest, most misleading headline about polling since...well, since the last one

The Independent is a digital-only newspaper these days, but it still nominally publishes a "front page", and today it bears the following headline: "Just two constituencies back May's deal...and 600 of the 650 want to remain in the EU, poll finds".  That gives the strong impression of a dramatic swing to Remain, because there would have to be a very large gap between the two sides for Leave to only be ahead in 50 seats.  But you perhaps won't be surprised to hear that things are not quite as the Independent are presenting them.  In fact that's the understatement of the millennium - incredibly, the headline is in fact referring to a poll which shows that there would be a very significant risk that a second EU referendum would produce the same outcome as the first, even if the question offered a stark choice between Remain and No Deal.

YouGov asked an enormous sample of more than 20,000 people to choose between different Brexit options, and found that there was a 50/50 split when the choice was between May's deal and Remain, and that there was a razor-thin 52-48 margin in favour of staying in the EU when the choice was between Remain and No Deal.  In other words, almost regardless of the question asked in any referendum, the public is essentially split down the middle and it's anyone's guess what would happen.  The only choice that doesn't produce a virtual dead heat is between May's deal and No Deal, but as either of those options would mean leaving both the EU and the single market, that's no great comfort.

So how on earth did the Independent manage to turn this Leave-friendly poll into a headline that implies a renaissance of Europhilia in the English shires?  Well, YouGov also invited respondents to make a three-way choice between Remain, the May deal, and No Deal.  46% chose Remain, and 54% chose one of the two Brexit options - meaning that the Independent's claim that the vast majority "want to remain in the EU" is the polar opposite of the truth.  But because support for the two Brexit options was split down the middle, that technically means Remain's 46% was enough for a handsome lead on a first-past-the-post basis, and that's what the Independent are getting at.  I've no idea what the relevance of that is supposed to be, given that there isn't a cat in hell's chance that any multi-option referendum would actually be conducted by first-past-the-post.

The Daily Record would have been proud of this one.

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Thursday, December 6, 2018

Why a no deal Brexit may still be more likely than a "People's Vote"

There's an anonymous commenter on this blog who keeps trying to get a narrative going that a second EU referendum is "almost certainly" going to happen.  The latest event which has supposedly made this almost certain outcome even more almost certain is the confirmation from the DUP that they will rescue the government on any no confidence motion that follows the rejection of Theresa May's Brexit deal, which should mean that Labour then revert to supporting a so-called "People's Vote" (if they stick to their word).  With Labour, SNP, Lib Dem and Tory rebel support, the theory goes, there would be majority support for a referendum and it would be bound to happen.  And yet, if you check the betting markets, you'll find that punters currently rate the chances of a referendum next year at significantly less than 50%.

As long-term readers know, I don't share Neil "Alligators" Lovatt's faith in the betting markets as some sort of predictive God.  But in this case, I've no doubt that they're a lot closer to being right than our "almost certain" friend.  First of all, although it's true you get to a majority if you add up all Labour, SNP, Lib Dem and Plaid Cymru MPs and add on the likely Tory rebels, it's far from being a comfortable majority.  It's inevitable that there will be a Labour counter-rebellion against a referendum, meaning that it's very difficult to know which way the vote would go.  Self-evidently, if there's a reasonable chance that a pro-referendum amendment will not be passed, there's also a reasonable chance that a referendum will never take place.

But it doesn't end there, because even if a pro-referendum amendment is passed, that still doesn't guarantee a referendum will actually happen.  It would take primary legislation to bring about a referendum, and it's phenomenally improbable that would happen without government support, or at least acquiescence.  The bottom line is that the government may not have the ability to get its own preferred option through, but it's certainly in a strong position to prevent anyone else's option getting through if it's determined to do so.  If we assume that Theresa May will remain Prime Minister through to the spring, and most people do seem to make that assumption, the question we should be asking ourselves is which undesirable option she would be most able to live with.  She doesn't want Remain, she doesn't want a referendum of any sort, she doesn't want No Deal, and she doesn't want a soft Brexit that would entail the retention of free movement.  But only three of those four possibilities would constitute an outright betrayal of what she has been saying to her political base.  The one exception is No Deal.

Some people are nursing the fond belief that No Deal simply can't happen, because there's a natural parliamentary majority against it, and parliament would therefore eliminate it as a possibility.  But this gets back to the old joke about parliament voting against bad weather - there are some things that MPs are simply powerless to do anything about.  If a deal isn't approved, the default position is not Remain, and it's not a second referendum.  The default is No Deal, and that's the case even if parliament passes a non-binding amendment "ruling out No Deal".  Positive action would have to be taken to change that default, and that means action by a government which may have no inclination to do any such thing.

There's a new article by Ian "Smug? Moi?" Dunt, which lambasts Brexiteers for suggesting a non-binding parliamentary vote could simply be ignored.  He suggests that this would be as outrageous as Remainers ignoring the outcome of the 2016 referendum, which was also technically non-binding.  But I'd suggest the government will have a pretty straightforward answer to that point - they could say that however important the will of parliament is, it can't be allowed to overrule the will of the people as expressed in the referendum.  So this, they could argue, is the one narrow circumstance in which the government has a democratic justification for disregarding an instruction from parliament.

That's not to say that No Deal would in any sense be a pain-free option for May - it would trigger yet another wave of resignations and once again threaten to topple her government.  But she may well still do it, because what other option is there that wouldn't unleash similar chaos?

Incidentally, on the subject of parliament not being able to legislate to change the weather, I was struck by the DUP's logic for committing to prop up the Tories in a confidence vote.  Nigel Dodds said that it would be odd to bring down the government if his party had only just achieved its objective of forcing the government to negotiate an alternative deal.  But rejecting the current deal doesn't actually have that effect.  It doesn't require the government to take any particular course of action, and it certainly doesn't require the EU to play ball with any renegotiation.  I just wonder what the DUP's attitude would be if Labour were to delay the confidence motion for long enough that it became clear that the government were planning to put the original deal (perhaps with a few cosmetic modifications) to the vote for a second time.

But even if the DUP never pull the plug on the Tories, there would still be a decent chance of an election at some point in 2019.  If a government simply can't get its business through, there comes a point where it has to take its chances and seek a fresh mandate at the most promising available moment.

*  *  *

Be warned: the remainder of this post is a self-indulgent stats post.  Here is the latest ranking of Scottish alternative media sites, based on estimates of unique visitors over the last 30 days from Traffic Estimate.  (I was going to post this on Twitter, but I came up against the character limit.)  As you can see, Scot Goes Pop is sitting pretty in a very creditable fourth place.

1) Craig Murray: 291,200 unique visitors
2) Wings Over Scotland: 181,400 unique visitors
3) CommonSpace: 103,100 unique visitors
4) Scot Goes Pop: 73,900 unique visitors
5) Wee Ginger Dug: 71,800 unique visitors
6) Talking Up Scotland: 68,500 unique visitors
7) Bella Caledonia: 57,400 unique visitors
8) Random Public Journal: 43,500 unique visitors
9) Indyref2: 40,900 unique visitors

Monday, December 3, 2018

Is a new route-map to independence starting to take shape?

The Glasgow SNP councillor Mhairi Hunter today rebuked those who were pushing for alternatives to an independence referendum by pointing out that a referendum is firm SNP policy, and that she personally does not believe that there is any route to independence without a referendum.  That argument troubles me a bit, because the vast majority of people who are talking about alternatives are not doing it because they oppose a referendum - quite the reverse, in fact.  A referendum is their preferred option, but they feel it has now been closed off.  If the referendum policy must be regarded as gospel, then by all means let's hold a referendum - but even the dogs on the street know that will entail going ahead without a Section 30 order, which both the Tories and Labour appear to be committed to refusing for the foreseeable future.  We're told that Nicola Sturgeon would never go ahead without a Section 30, which is exactly why there needs to be an alternative to a referendum.  It would be intellectually dishonest to maintain that you're in favour of a referendum if you're implacably opposed to actually taking the steps necessary to bring a referendum about in the real world.  That would be a strategy for not even really seeking to obtain independence, while having a good excuse with which mollify your supporters.

Fortunately, however, it appears that other senior SNP people disagree with Mhairi and are giving serious thought to possible methods by which an outright mandate for independence can be secured by an election, rather than by referendum.  An article in the Sunday Times suggested that the next Westminster election could be used to reinforce the current mandate for an independence referendum, and if that was ignored a subsequent Westminster election could then be used to obtain an outright mandate for independence itself.  It was implied that the second mandate would require some kind of super-majority in terms of seats won, but not necessarily an absolute majority of votes cast.

I must say that sounds unnecessarily convoluted to me.  We already have the mandate for a referendum, that mandate has already been ignored, so the obvious next step is to seek an outright mandate for independence at the next appropriate election - which I think logically should mean the next Holyrood election.  Even if we did end up seeking yet another mandate to hold a referendum, it seems a bit odd to say that we need a majority at Westminster for that, given that the 2014 indyref was held when the SNP had only 6 out of 59 Scottish seats in the House of Commons.  The much more natural arena for settling these questions is the Scottish Parliament.

On the plus side, though, at least there's a chance that the next Westminster election could only be a few months away - that's largely outwith our control, but it could well happen.  If that's the way it pans out, at least we wouldn't be mucking about indefinitely.  And even if I'm slightly dubious about the exact details of this strategy, I'm very glad that consideration is being given to credible options for breaking the logjam.

There was a unionist chap on Twitter yesterday who described any suggestion of abandoning the referendum idea in favour of an election as "fundamentalist".  If that's true, the source of the fundamentalism is a newly-radicalised British nationalist establishment that has made the holding of a referendum either difficult or impossible, and has left us with no option but to find an alternative.  Taking the best available option within the constraints that others have placed on you is a form of pragmatism, not extremism.  (The alternative course of action, which I fear Mhairi Hunter is agitating for, would be impotent utopianism.)  One thing I've started to do is delete comments on this blog which gloat that "there isn't going to be a referendum", not on the basis that the Scottish people don't want one, but simply on the basis that Westminster will block it regardless of circumstances.  If the only argument you've got is "you're living in a dictatorship, suck it up", you haven't really got an argument at all.

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