What’s the most significant event this month for Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer? So far, we’ve had Boris Johnson’s appearance before the Privileges Committee and the vote on the Windsor Framework on the Northern Ireland Protocol deal – with just 22 Tory rebels. Yet the event that could prove the most pivotal politically ahead of the next election comes on Monday when the victor of the SNP leadership contest is announced.
When Nicola Sturgeon announced that she was planning to step down, politicians in Westminster were in a state of shock. Many were delighted by the First Minister’s departure – they had come to doubt whether one of the Government’s most formidable opponents would ever voluntarily exit the stage. “It’s the best thing to happen this year,” says one minister.
As the contest to find her successor draws to a close, rather than offer a moment of rejuvenation for the SNP, the party has given way to infighting. The three candidates – Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan – have aired the party’s dirty laundry in a way that has not been customary in leadership contests in the SNP. From rows over the number of SNP members to debates about the realistic chance of independence any time soon, it’s been painful for Scotland’s governing party.
The SNP has historically tended to rally behind a candidate quickly. In 2004, Alex Salmond emerged as the clear favourite early on and won more than 75 per cent of the vote. Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon was uncontested in 2014.
This time around there is no front runner with the membership or public. A Sunday Times poll found that Forbes is the preferred choice, with 23 per cent of those surveyed backing her and 15 per cent backing Yousaf while just 7 per cent support Regan.
Allies of Regan believe the SNP machinery has rigged the contest so as to make it difficult for newcomers. Even among the membership, polling suggests a tight contest between Yousaf and Forbes.
Speak to a Labour and Tory politician and they have different views as to which politician would be more problematic. The Conservatives would undoubtedly prefer to face Yousaf. “He is Rishi’s secret weapon,” says one ally of the Prime Minister. Ultimately the Tories believe a gaffe-prone first minister would be a gift on several fronts.
First, his liberal political positions – including on gender reform and hate speech – would win over Labour voters. And they could also see some older socially conservative voters switch from the SNP to the Scottish Tories. This could provide Douglas Ross’s party with a boost. It could also rile Tory voters in England, thereby galvanising them to vote for the Conservatives.
It would be trickier for the Tories were Forbes to have a surprise win. It’s not an impossible scenario given the lack of consistent membership polling and the fact that the polling there is suggests she is making inroads.
Forbes was originally the candidate the Tories feared most. A strong Christian, it’s not just that she could appeal to a socially conservative electorate and potentially take votes from the Tories. She is also the candidate who is taken most seriously by business. “On the economy, Kate has authority,” says one SNP MP. It means one of the Tory party’s classic attacks against nationalists would be weakened.
However, after a bruising contest in which Forbes has been attacked over her religious faith, Tory MPs no longer hold large worries over her candidacy.
Instead, it’s Labour MPs who hope for Forbes. Were she to win, there is an opportunity for Scottish Labour to win over socially progressive voters who feel alienated by her comments on gay marriage and sex outside marriage (even though she says she would not change the law on such issues). It could also pose immediate problems for the SNP, given her victory could mean they lose the support of the Greens on whom they rely in the Scottish parliament.
What both Labour and the Tories can agree on is that Sturgeon’s departure is good news for the fight against independence. While polls vary, there is evidence that the independence movement is struggling. Both Forbes and Yousaf have suggested they won’t be able to deliver Scottish independence any time soon. The period when nationalists were most optimistic about their chances was when Boris Johnson – a parody of Tory elitism for many voters – was prime minister and Sturgeon First Minister.
Sunak is a trickier opponent for nationalists than Johnson. He is not looking to pick a fight. Instead the Tories plan to talk about the need to focus on the voters and good of Scotland more generally by resetting relations, when the SNP winner is announced. This is the Michael Gove approach – more flies can be caught with honey than vinegar.
However, even though there is more reason for optimism than there has been for years, unionists ought to tread carefully. When Salmond resigned, similar soundings were heard as unionists predicted that nationalism was on the way out. Instead, Sturgeon amplified it further.
It means that whoever wins on Monday, both Labour and the Tories will keep needing to make the case for the Union. Without that, they are vulnerable to the rise of nationalism once again. A battle may have been won but the war is far from over.