The SNP and Tories are political frenemies, caught in an unhealthy, symbiotic relationship
The 2014 Scottish independence referendum and 2016 Brexit referendum upended politics at Labour’s expense. But it was unclear how stable or enduring the changes brought about by these shocks would be.
The dealignment in politics created great opportunities for the SNP and Tories. But neither has successfully consolidated, nor managed to build on its new-found support. This is likely to be confirmed very clearly this coming year.
Support for the underlying causes of the electoral shocks differs. Brexit support has declined while support for independence has held up since the respective referendums. Fewer than one in five Leave voters think Brexit is going well and approaching 60 per cent of voters think it was wrong to leave the EU. Support for independence remains around the same level as in 2014. But there is one significant similarity – there is little appetite to reopen either question, at least any time soon.
But polling needs to be treated with care. Headline figures hide a range of opinions, including depth of feeling.
It may make sense for the SNP to highlight independence given that support for independence exceeds support for the SNP and far outstrips support for Humza Yousaf. But in doing so, the SNP is vulnerable amongst the not insignificant body of independence supporters who do not want to reopen the question now and who are keen to get rid of the Tories. Many lukewarm independence supporters might be willing to vote Labour and, depending on what Labour does in office, abandon support for independence.
The two referendum results deepened the inter-dependency between the SNP and Tories. The SNP and Tories are political frenemies, caught in an unhealthy, symbiotic relationship. A Labour victory at Westminster is the worst result for both parties. It will remove the central plank of the SNP’s message over the last decade.
The SNP message has gone through a series of changes as Labour’s support rose over the last few years. Initially it argued that the Tories would rule forever. As Labour pulled ahead of the Tories, the SNP argued that the lead was fragile, insufficient to guarantee a Labour victory. As Labour sustained a commanding lead over the Tories, the SNP then argued that Labour was just the same as the Tories.
Humza Yousaf has now conceded that Labour will form a government after the next election. The argument now is that Scottish Labour MPs would ‘just make up the numbers down in Westminster’. But voters may prefer Scottish MPs with easy access to Downing Street than empty rhetoric about ‘holding the government’s feet to the fire’ and which raises the question of what SNP MPs have achieved.
After the 1987 election, when Labour won 70 per cent of Scottish seats, the SNP charged this substantial contingent with being the ‘feeble fifty’. But have the 80 per cent of SNP MPs returned in 2019 been any more effective in opposition, or the 95 per cent of SNP MPs returned in 2015? There will be many voters who are tired of oppositional politics and keen to know that their elected representatives will be listened to in Westminster.
The Tories will struggle to portray the SNP as a bogeyman south of the border in the coming election as they have done fairly successfully in previous elections. A Tory poster of Keir Starmer in Humza Yousaf’s top pocket would not have a hint of credibility. It will be difficult to raise the spectre of Scottish nationalism to scare middle England into voting Tory.
And the SNP’s efforts to portray Starmer’s Labour as a Tory Party will be no more convincing coming from an SNP seeking to freeze the council tax and a record that hardly stands up to ‘progressive’ scrutiny.
The Tories will at least have no difficulty raising campaign funds. But losing members, MPs (and attendant staff), money including the ‘Short money’ available to opposition parties in the Commons – amounting to over £1.3m in 2023/24 for the SNP – will hit hard.
But far more worrying for each party will be the internal reaction to a significant loss of seats. Parties have a habit of looking inwards when this happens, ignoring the electorate.
The frenemies within take precedence over any enemy or frenemy outside as internal divisions become more embittered, and hard-line fundamentalism gains traction. The behaviour of both the SNP and Tories already exhibits such signs.
When a party knows its time is up, there is little that can be done to reverse that.