Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
by Chris Marshall
02 June 2024
Oh, snap: Why the election has come too soon for John Swinney

John Swinney has been SNP leader for less than a month | Alamy

Oh, snap: Why the election has come too soon for John Swinney

With a month to go before the polls open, there is much that can still happen to shape the outcome of the general election. But for defining images of the campaign it will be hard to beat that of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak getting soaked to the skin as he announced the date of the vote while Labour’s 1997 anthem Things Can Only Get Better blared in the background. Within hours of the speech, a doctored version with added sound effects was being shared on social media in which Sunak is heard squelching back to the privacy of Number 10 before letting out an “Aaaarrrrrgggggh!” of window-rattling frustration once the door had safely closed behind him. 

If Sunak was caught out by the weather, it was his decision to announce the general election for July 4 which appears to have wrong footed not only his opponents, but also those within his own party. Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker, for example, faced criticism after going to a Greek island on holiday. “The prime minister told everyone we could go on holiday and then called a snap election, so I’ve chosen to do my campaign work in Greece,” an irked sounding Baker told journalists. 

The announcement also seems to have caught the PM’s communications team on the hop with a string of hastily arranged press calls. In the first few days of campaigning Sunak visited Wales where he asked bemused voters if they were “looking forward to the football” (Wales didn’t qualify for Euro 2024) and Northern Ireland where a trip to Belfast’s Titanic Quarter led to one journalist asking if he was the “captain of a sinking ship”. In contrast, his flying visit to Scotland appears to have been gaffe-free apart from appearing in a constituency where the party had no candidate.

With the latest polling putting the Tories around 20 points behind Labour, Sunak’s strategists appear to have identified older voters and those currently expressing support for Reform as one way of closing the gap. That’s led to eye-catching proposals such as getting all 18-year-olds to take part in a form of national service which would compel them to complete a community training programme or a year-long military training scheme, an onerous commitment for a generation of young people who already sacrificed so much during the pandemic. 

Sunak gets soaked: The prime minister calls the general election | Alamy

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), a think tank, said a plan to pay for the move by scrapping the UK Shared Prosperity Fund would hit the poorest areas of the country hardest and undermine the levelling up agenda. Scotland received £124m under the fund in the current financial year, with the money used to boost community projects and local infrastructure. The Tories have also promised to raise the tax-free pension allowance, a plan described as a “desperate gimmick” by Labour. 

If there’s a whiff of desperation around the Tory campaign, it’s not been helped by a seemingly endless list of MPs confirming their intention to stand down at the election. Since the prime minister’s announcement about the dissolution of parliament, Michael Gove and former leadership contender Andrea Leadsom have joined the lengthy list of those set to quit politics. Others who had already signalled their intention to stand down include Dominic Raab, Nadim Zahawi, Ben Wallace and Scottish Secretary Alister Jack. And amid rumours he’s set for a job in Silicon Valley after leaving politics, the prime minister had to dismiss suggestions he will leave the UK if the Conservatives lose the election. 

To underline just how unexpected the prime minister’s snap election call was, the Tories still had to identify candidates for around 160 constituencies at the start of last week. The deadline for candidates to be nominated is June 7. 

While the Tories’ campaign is off to a stuttering start, neither Labour or the SNP have managed to set the heather alight north of the border. The SNP has struggled to get onto the front foot, with the press conference for its election launch dominated by questions about former health secretary Michael Matheson. Holyrood’s cross-party standards committee last month recommended a 27-day suspension for the Falkirk West MSP after he broke expenses rules over an £11,000 data roaming bill run up on his parliamentary iPad. 

While the sanction was perhaps harsher than many had expected, it was nevertheless assumed the SNP would support it when it was put to a vote of MSPs. The party’s MSPs ultimately abstained but not before John Swinney squandered any political capital he had accrued in the weeks since becoming first minister when he dismissed the committee’s findings as biased against his “friend” Matheson. An SNP amendment put down in the name of Deputy First Minister Kate Forbes complained of the potential for “bias and prejudice” in the standard committee’s deliberations and called for an independent review of the parliament’s complaints process “to restore integrity and confidence”. 

Despite a renewed sense of purpose under Swinney after 13 months of drift under his predecessor, Humza Yousaf (one party source called it a “hiatus”), the polls do not look great for Scotland’s party of government. One conducted last week by Survation found Labour six points ahead of its rivals and on course to win the most Scottish seats at Westminster. Polling guru John Curtice said the SNP, which currently holds 43 of Scotland’s 59 seats, could be heading for “severe losses” in July.

“As the general election campaign gets under way, the SNP face the prospect of severe losses at the beginning of July, and thus the possible loss of its coveted status as the third-largest party at Westminster,” Curtice said. “The party badly needs to try and persuade Yes supporters to return to the party fold.”

Modelling based on the polling suggested Labour would win 28 seats in Scotland, while the SNP would drop to 16, with the Tories picking up eight MPs and the Lib Dems five. 

Meanwhile, focus groups carried out by Lord Ashcroft spoke to undecided former SNP and Conservative voters in Paisley, Dundee and Aberdeen and found that people who had backed the SNP before were “more critical” of the party than in any previous research rounds. While voters were positive about policies such as free school meals and the renationalisation of ScotRail, they were critical of the party’s record on the economy, drug deaths and ferries.

The SNP abstained on a vote to sanction Michael Matheson | Alamy

Operation Branchform, the long-running police investigation into the SNP’s finances which has already resulted in a charge of embezzlement against former chief executive Peter Murrell, also led some voters to see the party in a more negative light. Despite positive signs for Labour, Ashcroft said there was only one reason why many were considering switching from the SNP and that was to oust the Tories.

For Swinney, this election has come to soon. When his party crowned him as Yousaf’s successor at the beginning of last month, a general election in late autumn or early winter looked most likely, giving the new SNP leader time to turn around his party’s ailing fortunes. Yet despite some initial signs that a new era of minority government would require a fresh approach from the SNP, Swinney’s initial reaction to the standards committee sanction of Matheson was one of hauteur and arrogance. Allowing his opponents another week to talk about the indefensible actions of the former health secretary proved to be a misjudgement on the part of the new first minister. 

There was more bad news for the SNP on the day of the party’s election launch, with confirmation that an Operation Branchform report on Murrell had been passed to prosecutors with former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and former party treasurer Colin Beattie still under investigation by Police Scotland. If there’s to be some positivity for the SNP ahead of the election, some chink of light, it’s hard to see where it might come from. 

As for Labour, leader Keir Starmer made an early campaign appearance in Glasgow, but Scottish leader Anas Sarwar was caught up in a row over whether his family firm pays the real living wage or not. Sarwar, who no longer has shares in the company, was accused of hypocrisy after telling the BBC that United Wholesale did not pay all its workers the real living wage of £12 an hour. However, trade union Usdaw later said that following a recent agreement with the company, which was set up by Sarwar’s father and is now run by family members, all staff are now paid more than the real living wage.

Labour is currently riding high in the polls | Alamy

After 17 years of SNP government in Scotland, Labour continues to have a bit of an image problem north of the border, it seems. One voter who took part in Lord Ashcroft’s focus groups said Labour were “salmon and strawberries” to the SNP’s “Buckfast and square sausage”, a characterisation that neither party is likely to be particularly happy with but one that suggests many voters believe Labour has betrayed its working-class roots. Asked what a Labour Sunday lunch might look like, another said: “They’d be in Islington eating sourdough bread at £9 a loaf.”

It’s not all been plain sailing for Labour in London either, where longstanding MP and former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott had the whip restored but was reportedly told she would be barred from standing for the party at the election along with former leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is running as an independent.

Abbott last week had a suspension lifted following an investigation into comments she made in a letter to a newspaper in April last year but later said she was “dismayed” about reports that she would not be her party’s candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. Starmer later said Abbott would be free to stand as Labour's candidate. Referring to former Tory MP Natalie Elphicke, who defected to Labour, former First Minister Humza Yousaf tweeted: “A Labour Party that embraces Natalie Elphicke but has no room for Diane Abbott isn’t a party that deserves anyone’s trust, let alone their vote.”

By the time Britain goes to the polls next month, Scotland’s schools will have broken up for the summer holidays and the national football team will hopefully be deep into the latter stages of Euro 2024, having defeated all those in its path to glory. Yet even those blindly optimistic about Sunak’s chances must see him crashing out of Downing Street, bringing an end to 14 years of Tory rule. That Starmer will replace him as prime minister appears to be a fait accompli, but whether Scotland’s electoral map is to be redrawn remains to be seen.  

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Read the most recent article written by Chris Marshall - Going Private: How political failure helped create a two-tier health service.

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox


Popular reads
Back to top