How Theresa May must wish she had had the services of an accurate prial of precogs to draw on before announcing the snap general election of June 2017. They might have warned her that she would end up stood on a platform alongside diverse other candidates such as the new Sith Apprentice Lord Buckethead (God bless you British democracy), her expression as cracked and broken as her mandate as the results rolled in from around the country. Her party’s defenestration of the SNP’s upper echelons counted for next to nothing – those gains had been secured by the efforts of Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson in spite of the glaringly awful campaign conducted by the Prime Minister. This was, in my experience, the worst ever campaign fought by a sitting UK Government, and an amazing display of ineptitude by the Conservative Party. It is hard to live up to the ‘strong and stable’ tagline when a key manifesto commitment is shredded within 24 hours of launch and you absent yourself from the bearpit of televised debate while occasionally sending surrogates to fight your corner. Weak, weak, weak.
In Scotland the SNP were left licking some very deep wounds, having also stumbled their way through a shockingly bad campaign. Nicola Sturgeon entrusted the campaign to her Cabinet Secretary for Finance Derek Mackay, and he delivered a plate of stovies so devoid of meat and moisture it sat in Scottish bellies like a heavy dod of stodge. The presidential style campaigning of 2015, when the SNP were carried along by the wave of defeated 45ers, was repeated with the same vacuous straplines and another helicopter tour for the First Minister. The Nicolopter in 2015 conjured images of a benevolent, caring Mother Sturgeon spreading her good cheer via endless selfies; in 2017 it made flesh Tracy Ullman’s superb satirical take on the First Minister. The SNP’s campaign was negative and petulant. It is hardly aspirational to meet criticisms of your handling of public services with “Yeah, we know they’re not great but they’re better than England’s or Wales'” – especially when evidence says otherwise. Nor is it advisable for politicians to trigger witch hunt smears against public sector workers when they speak out, yet that is exactly what Jeane Freeman MSP and Joanna Cherry MP did when a nurse directly challenged the First Minister on national television. In doing so the SNP revealed some of the bitter, tribal hatred that can develop when your Cult of the Leader strategy fails.
If all this was meant to mask Sturgeon’s self inflicted position of constant pivoting on EU membership, as well as the ‘we will, we won’t’ approach to indyref2, it did exactly the opposite. The Scottish voters exacted a grievous toll of talent from the SNP’s Westminster group. Alex Salmond may be well past his prime but he carries legendary status in the hearts of devout nationalists. Angus Robertson, the party’s deputy leader and Westminster group leader, has been a standout performer in the House of Commons. Both are now considering their future as the SNP’s northeast redoubt crumbled. Lesser known names such as Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh and Steven Paterson fell as Conservative blue filled in central belt constituencies for the first time in decades. The electoral fates are not without a sense of humour, though. Just as the talent was being stripped from the SNP benches, their Bontempi organ bothering court jester Pete Wishart survived in Perth and North Perthshire by a handful of votes.
The SNP’s hegemony has been built on the back of a politics largely devoid of principle, seeking only to capture voters for their independence project. The universalism of ‘free stuff’ (paid for by the Barnett Formula, remember) has proven hugely popular, as has their shameless caricaturing of the Scottish Labour Party as Red Tories based on that party’s decision to support remaining a part of the United Kingdom. Finally that caricature has been crushed. Jeremy Corbyn defied all expectations (including my own) by fighting a remarkably tight, coherent, and upbeat campaign. He grew with the campaign and emerged, whilst not a victor, with a degree of personal credibility that seemed impossible only weeks ago. I cannot look past his dubious history nor his Marxist politics, which I do not care for or share. But he connected. Labour secured 41% of the vote across the UK to the Tories 44%. He has ended Conservative majority government, and it is highly likely that June will be the end of May.
Not only that, he has re-energised the Labour brand in Scotland. The first sign of this came early on Friday morning as my own constituency, Rutherglen and Hamilton West, made its declaration. Margaret Ferrier who gained it for the SNP in 2015 with a majority of 9,975 was defeated by Labour’s Ged Killen by 265 votes. Across Glasgow and the West, the SNP majorities of 2015 were hacked up, and while they retained most of these seats, they will look at the remaining majorities with some trepidation. Labour regained East Lothian, Midlothian, Kirkcaldy, Glasgow NE, Coatbridge, and now have the biggest Scottish majority of any seat in Edinburgh South. Corbyn’s campaign has given Scottish Labour a kickstart, despite the somewhat ill fitting dovetail between himself and Kezia Dugdale. Labour moderates will find they have little choice but to follow Corbyn’s path for at least one more electoral cycle; already the signs are there that this is starting to happen. Dugdale would not be drawn on her previous views on Corbyn.
Even the Liberal Democrats tasted success against the luminous yellow horde. They claimed three SNP scalps, in particular depriving the SNP of the political embarrassments that are Paul Monaghan and John Nicolson. Monaghan is the Russian TV devotee who seemed to think he was playing the part of some Bond villain KGB member. Nicolson was half of the witch hunt against then STV journalist Stephen Daisley; curious to see an ex-journalist attempting to restrict freedom of speech. Their third gain of the evening came in the hotly contested constituency of Edinburgh West, where they consigned Toni Giugliano to his second defeat in two years.
Where to now for Scotland? It is really difficult to say. May’s calculated gamble has failed on one front but succeeded on another, albeit in spite of her efforts. She took out the SNP’s Westminster talent but left herself exposed to Corbyn’s unexpected campaigning vim. The SNP claimed victory but certainly haven’t given the appearance of being winners. Sturgeon faces a difficult choice. Indyref2 has proven to be a vote loser at the ballot box, but there is a question of timing here. Some Yes voters have deserted the SNP at Westminster; this does not mean they have necessarily changed their minds on independence. For the time being, Sturgeon could remove indyref2 from the table, preferring to play the waiting game while events unfold at Westminster and Brussels. She would risk alienating her party fundamentalists, but the only other choice is to go all in, continue to push for indyref2 despite voter opposition to it and risk losing the farm. The clock is ticking on what she claims is her Holyrood mandate for indyref2 and there is the possibility of another general election very soon. The Tories might not threaten her in many more seats but Scottish Labour are now breathing down her neck in their old heartlands. There are dangers every way she looks. She will need every ounce of her political talent to navigate these choppy waters, and momentum is not on her side.
A lot of water could flow under the bridge very quickly. Brexit negotiations are due to begin soon and the stability of Conservative minority government propped up by DUP votes remains highly questionable. Tory discipline will need to be watertight to sustain such an arrangement, and MPs are furious at the failure of their party’s campaign. Minority government is unusual but not impossible at Westminster, though it has its pitfalls (ask Nick Clegg). But Tory splits between Leave and Remain might, as has historically been the case, throw a spanner in the works. Ruth Davidson is already deploying her enhanced political capital with suggestions that the Brexit deal sought needs to be revisited. May called an election with the intent of securing a strong mandate to see the UK through the Brexit process. Instead she has created an almighty boorach. Will Brexit now mean Brexit? What sort of continental breakfast are we about to be served?
“Where there is discord, may we bring more discord… eh… dammit, that’s not right…” *exits stage left*