Friday, December 8, 2017

It's IMPOSSIBLE for a devolved parliament to have a Brexit veto (except when it's in the Tories' own interests, in which case it's obviously totally possible)

In my last blogpost, I posed the question: given the entrenched positions of the DUP, the Irish government and anti-European Tory MPs, how was it even possible for a deal to be reached?  Ireland required no hard border, which meant either that Britain as a whole had to remain closely aligned to the EU (ie. a soft Brexit), or there had to be a special status for Northern Ireland.  The DUP's red line was no special status for Northern Ireland, which left no other option for Theresa May but to concede the principle of a soft Brexit right now - except, of course, that would be totally unacceptable to anti-European Tory MPs.

The circle has theoretically been squared today by allowing Tory MPs to retain hope that a soft Brexit can be averted by means of a special status for Northern Ireland, while also keeping the DUP on board by giving the Northern Ireland Assembly a veto on such a deal (which, given the cross-community voting arrangements in the Assembly, amounts to a DUP veto).  Essentially, it's a temporary truce that hinges on the stupidity of Tory MPs - they have to believe it's possible that the DUP will eventually sign off on Northern Ireland becoming a "special administrative region", which is plainly never going to happen.  When that realisation hits home, it's not hard to imagine how everything could quickly unravel, and an extreme 'no deal' Brexit could be back on the cards.

As far as the consequences for Scotland are concerned, arguably today's developments leave the Tories in an even worse position than the proposed agreement on Monday would have done.  The Monday text merely conceded that one part of the UK could remain more closely aligned to the EU than other parts if it so wishes, which the Tories had previously said was impossible for Scotland.  Today's text goes further and gives a devolved legislature a veto on one aspect of Brexit, which was also supposed to be completely impossible.  The SNP are quite right to scent blood.

*  *  *

Two new Scottish subsamples have been published since my last update -

ICM: SNP 33%, Labour 27%, Conservatives 24%, Greens 8%, Liberal Democrats 6%, UKIP 1%

YouGov: SNP 38%, Labour 30%, Conservatives 23%, Liberal Democrats 5%, Greens 2%, BNP 2%, UKIP 1%

Across all firms, twenty-seven of the last twenty-nine subsamples have put the SNP in first place.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A paradox: did Tory losses at the general election make a hard Brexit more likely?

There was a great deal of speculation back in June about whether the election resulting in a hung parliament - albeit, crucially, one in which the Conservatives and DUP held a majority between them - made a hard Brexit significantly less likely.  The theory was that Labour would wield much more influence, and that even the DUP would help steer the government towards a softer Brexit because of their pragmatic desire for a 'frictionless frontier' with the Republic.  Well, the latter point is now looking distinctly ropey, because the one and only reason a hard Irish border even remains a possibility today is because the DUP vetoed the deal yesterday.  It's still the case that the DUP would probably sign up quite happily to a soft Brexit as long as there were explicit guarantees that the degree of 'softness' would be uniform throughout the UK, and that Northern Ireland wouldn't end up in a 'one country, two systems' scenario.  But any such guarantees would trigger a mass Tory rebellion and quite possibly bring the government down.

The trouble with trying to bounce people into an agreement they wouldn't ordinarily sign up to is that you have to move so fast that they don't know what's hit them until it's too late.  The gambit almost worked yesterday, but a miss is as good as a mile, and Theresa May's game has now been well and truly rumbled.  Having taken such open satisfaction in foiling Dublin's plans, the DUP will presumably only be able to get back on board if the Irish government are seen to publicly back down on points of substance, and that's surely very unlikely.  Meanwhile, Tory Eurosceptics are now wise to May's willingness to concede a soft Brexit if that's the only way of squaring the Northern Ireland circle, and they'll move over the coming days to close that option off.   Where else is there to go?

Right at this moment, it does appear that the loss of the Tory majority has - against all expectations - created a dynamic that makes a hard Brexit more likely, not less so.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Schrodinger's No Regulatory Divergence

I've just been catching up with the fudge on Northern Ireland that looks set to save the Brexit negotiations - but at what price?  My first reaction was that it would bring down the Tory government because the DUP would withdraw support, but it looks like what we're actually moving towards is a situation where the EU and Ireland insist that a special status has been agreed for Northern Ireland, while the DUP insist the deal doesn't mean any such thing.  Or to put it another way, the DUP have seemingly decided to "explain" a sellout to their own voters, rather than oppose it.  I'm not sure that's sustainable, but if the DUP leadership do try to hold the line, they could quickly find themselves facing the same fate as David Trimble and Reg Empey.

And what of Scotland?  It seems to me there is one answer, and one answer only, to the question of why Scotland can't have the same deal as Northern Ireland.  That answer is "because it would create a border on the island of Great Britain".  But the moment the Tories actually say that out loud, the unionist population of Northern Ireland will hear the message loud and clear that a border is being created between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the DUP leadership will be toast.

There are two political parties that are suddenly in a pickle today - and the SNP isn't one of them.

Ruth Davidson faces "utter humiliation" at next election as Scottish Tories slump to third place in landmark Survation poll

Scottish voting intentions for next Westminster general election (Survation):

SNP 37% (-2)
Labour 28% (+2)
Conservatives 25% (-1)

Note that the percentage changes listed above are from the last Survation poll a couple of months ago, rather than from the general election result itself.  The SNP's vote share is unchanged since the general election, while the Tories have slipped four points.  Curiously, Labour haven't taken much advantage of that - they're only up a statistically insignificant one point since June.  No word yet on the Lib Dems' showing in the poll as far as I can see.

Across all firms, this is the fourth full-scale Scottish poll since the general election, and it's the first of the four that hasn't been unalloyed good news for the SNP - ie. it's the first that hasn't shown the SNP with a higher vote share than they achieved at the election.  However, in my view it remains truly remarkable that the SNP's vote isn't down since the election. The momentum seemed to be totally against them during the summer, and yet the ship has since been steadied and they now enjoy a slightly greater lead over the second placed party than they did in June - albeit the identity of the second placed party has changed.  The most satisfying point is that there has been a net swing of 2% from Tory to SNP since the election, which ought to put the SNP in line for modest gains from the Tories if there were to be a hypothetical election tomorrow.

Scottish Parliament voting intentions

Constituency vote:

SNP 39% (-3)

Regional vote:

SNP 33% (+2)

Yup, that's literally all we have on the Holyrood voting intentions in the poll so far - the Record haven't bothered to mention the figures for any other party!  They do note that the SNP and Greens wouldn't have an overall majority between them based on the poll, but that's a statement of the obvious and isn't a change from the last set of Survation numbers.  It's reassuring at least that the SNP's list vote has bounced back from the unusually low 31% in the last poll.

John Curtice is quoted in the Record piece making the vitally important point that although the SNP now face much stiffer competition at both Westminster and Holyrood than was the case a year or two ago, that change in the political weather hasn't been accompanied by a drop in support for independence - far from it.  As we saw last night, Yes support in the Survation poll is back up to 47%, an improvement of some four points since the post-election poll from the same firm in June.  It strikes me that a minority of people within the SNP were determined to learn the wrong lesson from the general election result - they thought the party had talked about independence too much, but it seems far more likely that the opposite is true.  Quite plainly independence is significantly more popular at the moment than even the SNP, so it's hard to see what the harm would be in campaigning on independence more vigorously.  Remember that holding the first referendum in 2014 was the key to unlocking vast support for the SNP from ex-Labour voters who might not otherwise have ever made the jump. The recollection of that lesson now that the dust has settled on the general election may explain why the SNP leadership seem much more bullish about a pre-2021 referendum than they were a few months ago.

UPDATE: Survation have confirmed the full figures from the poll, which are as follows...

Westminster voting intention:

SNP 37% (-2)
Labour 28% (+2)
Conservatives 25% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 7% (n/c)

Scottish Parliament constituency voting intention:

SNP 39% (-3)
Labour 25% (n/c)
Conservatives 24% (-2)
Liberal Democrats 8% (+1)

Scottish Parliament regional list voting intention:

SNP 33% (+2)
Labour 25% (n/c)
Conservatives 22% (+1)
Greens 8% (-1)
Liberal Democrats 8% (-2)
UKIP 3% (n/c)

No wonder the Record didn't want to say too much about the Holyrood figures, because it turns out that Labour's support is absolutely static - putting the wild claims that Labour have made great strides under Richard Leonard in a somewhat different perspective.  It's perfectly possible the party haven't made any real progress on the Westminster front either - their 2% boost could easily just be a margin of error illusion.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Ruth Davidson SHUDDERS as support for independence increases to 47% in long-awaited Survation poll

We're getting a bit closer to solving the mystery of the elusive full-scale Scottish poll from Survation - it turns out it was commissioned by the Record.  Given that publication's virulently anti-SNP, pro-Labour and anti-independence stance, it's intriguing that the first detail they've chosen to reveal is not Holyrood or Westminster voting intention, but as David Clegg himself puts it, "Indyref 2 voting intention".  He's probably correct to anticipate Indyref 2 on these numbers, which suggest support for independence is higher than at the 2014 referendum, and is within just three percentage points of victory.

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 47% (+1)
No 53% (-1)

The percentage changes I've listed above assume this is an online Survation poll, which it probably is.  If that's right, it's the second consecutive increase in support for Yes, which has bounced back from the low of 43% recorded just after the general election in June.  If by any chance it's a telephone poll, the recovery for Yes is even more dramatic, because the last Survation phone poll was conducted just before the June election, and had Yes on only 39%.

An indyref is much more likely to take place in 2019 or 2020 than next year

First things first: a Survation-Watch update.  Stuart Dickson has spotted an article in the Sunday Post about a Scottish poll conducted by Survation between the 27th and 30th of November.  It was commissioned by an organisation called 38 Degrees and asks whether EU powers over devolved areas should be transferred direct to Holyrood after Brexit (as would happen automatically if it wasn't for the UK government's power grab in the Great Repeal Bill).  The results are predictable, albeit devastating for the UK government - almost two-thirds of the Scottish public want the powers to go to Edinburgh, not London.

The poll looks for all the world like a bolt-on question added to a full-scale poll commissioned by a different client.  So it looks like Survation have carried out the Scottish poll they promised - but so far the voting intention results are nowhere to be seen.  Maybe those will still appear over the coming hours or days - and if they don't, there'll be the tantalising possibility that maybe, just maybe, the client is holding them back due to disappointment with the numbers.  Something like that happened a couple of months ago, as you may recall.

What did turn up last night was a UK-wide Survation voting intention poll, which caused a sensation because it puts Labour in overall majority territory for the first time in years.  The Scottish subsample shows the following: SNP 34%, Labour 29%, Conservatives 23%, UKIP 8%, Liberal Democrats 7%.  That's not to be sniffed at - any sort of SNP lead in a poll that puts Labour on 45% at UK level is pretty good going.  Across all firms, twenty-five of the last twenty-seven subsamples have shown the SNP in first place.

To turn to a different subject, this month's issue of iScot magazine features Peter A Bell and myself making entirely opposite points about the timing of the second independence referendum, and doing so with equal confidence.  For reasons that I find hard to pin down, Peter is certain that the referendum will be held in September 2018, whereas I think a 2018 referendum is close enough to being impossible as makes no difference - although of course I do firmly believe that it should (and probably will) be held before the current mandate expires in May 2021.  Yesterday, Peter claimed that Nicola Sturgeon had dropped a heavy hint that 2018 was going to be The Year in remarks to the SNP National Council.  Others disputed that she had done any such thing, and I'm not surprised, because I'm baffled as to how Peter thinks a 2018 referendum is even feasible in practical terms.

If the UK government were prepared to pass a Section 30 order without fuss upon request, then of course holding a snap referendum at almost any time would be a trivial matter.  But all the indications are that they intend to persevere with the "now is not the time" tactic for a few years, which means any vote in 2018 would have to be of the consultative variety, held without Westminster's permission.  That makes it harder to do on a tight timetable, because the following steps would have to be followed -

1) Nicola Sturgeon would need to allow ample time for a renewed Section 30 request to be considered, in order to demonstrate that she isn't just going through the motions in making it.  She'll want to establish in the public mind that she bent over backwards to reach an agreement, and wasn't hellbent on going it alone.

2) She'll then need time to explain to the public why an "unauthorised" consultative referendum has become necessary - not least because the media will point out she's changed her own mind on that subject.

3) The Scottish Parliament will then need to go through the process of legislating for a referendum, which from a legal perspective will not necessarily be that easy.  The Presiding Officer's legal advisers will have to be satisfied that the proposal is within the parliament's current powers, which will require very careful wording.  If that is achieved, it'll still be important that the SNP are not seen to railroad such controversial legislation through parliament - there'll have to be proper time for reflection and debate.

4) There may then be legal challenges to overcome.

5) Last but not least, Ms Sturgeon will need to allow an appropriate length of time for the campaign proper.  I don't think anyone would want a campaign anything like as long as the one that preceded the 2014 vote - but any attempt to cram it into a few short weeks would look like a cynical tactic and might backfire badly.

I would suggest the last realistic date for a 2018 referendum is late October - anything beyond that would lead to concerns about the weather.  (Alex Salmond initially proposed that the first indyref should be held on St Andrew's Day 2010, but fate proved that wasn't such a great idea - there was heavy snow and traffic chaos on that day.)  So basically we're talking about a little under eleven months from now.  If Ms Sturgeon got the ball rolling right now or very soon, there might be just about enough time.  But that clearly isn't going to happen.  There'll be no announcement this side of Christmas, and probably not until well into the New Year.  That means the 2018 option will be effectively timed out, and we'll be looking at a probable date of 2019 or 2020.  I'm not at all downhearted by that, because it wasn't very long ago that siren voices within the SNP were seemingly trying to use the general election result as an excuse to "park" any talk of a referendum until beyond the 2021 election.  They now appear to have comprehensively lost the internal debate.

Does the near-impossibility of a 2018 vote mean that the referendum will be held after Britain officially leaves the European Union?  Quite possibly, yes.  Is that sub-optimal?  In my opinion, absolutely.  But if we wanted a September 2018 referendum, the time for making that case was during the summer.  It seems to me we lost that particular battle, but won the wider war to keep a pre-2021 vote firmly on course.  Speaking personally, I'm more than satisfied with that outcome.