Politics

Douglas Ross needs to watch his back, for Anas Sarwar may be coming, says Andy Maciver

HAPPY new year, everyone, or, at the very least, a happier new year than the last one. 2021 had promised rather a lot in comparison to 2020, which for most people was a dismal year, scarred by the first, and most dramatic Covid-19 lockdown. In that respect, it comprehensively failed to deliver.

However Omicron, with its far milder presentation and the associated reduction in pressure (so far) on the health service, gives us that shaft of light at the end of the tunnel for which we have all been looking. We can live in the hope that new variants will continue to become milder, eliminating the need for isolation or lockdown when they arrive.

However, since our scientific and medical experts are having some degree of trouble predicting the future, I will not try my hand. Instead, allow me to stick to my knitting, and glance ahead at what 2022 may look like in the world of news, politics and current affairs.

2021 was a year which also promised much in Scottish politics. Indeed, we had a theoretically blockbuster election to the Scottish Parliament in May. Unlike in 2016, the SNP’s manifesto commitment to a second independence referendum was clear and without caveat, and polling suggested they would again return a system-busting majority of MSPs to Holyrood.

In the end, the Chamber’s composition looks very much like it did before, with no party gaining or losing more than two seats. I have written on these pages before about why the SNP’s failure to gain a majority in a system of proportional representation does not negate its mandate, and I will not cover that ground again today.

However, in the final analysis, that single-seat deficit is what gave the UK Government a shot in the arm to stubbornly refuse to grant indyref 2.

Where does that leave the SNP for 2022? Well, it is certainly true that we are unused to seeing the level of internal indiscipline in the party that we witnessed last year. As well as unrest over gender recognition (look out for that issue reaching the public consciousness this year with a force we have not yet seen), there is undoubtedly unease over the First Minister’s independence strategy.

Exactly what is the plan? Why are you sitting, waiting for something to happen? How are you going to force indyref 2 if the Tories just keep saying no? When is it going to be? These are the questions being volleyed at Nicola Sturgeon by some on her own side, and the truth is that they are awkward, difficult questions to answer.

A year from today, we will have entered the year which will see the half-way point of this term of office – the point by which Ms Sturgeon has pledged to deliver the referendum. But with no election this year (without offence to my friends in local government, much as I would love to see local elections become more important, the result in council polls this May will not impact on the national picture), it is difficult to see what tools she has in her kit to force the UK Government’s hand during 2022.

Perhaps her most important weapon will turn out to be the UK Government itself. 2021 was a metaphorical game of two halves for the Tories. The world-leading vaccine rollout programme had Prime Minister Boris Johnson soaring in the opinion polls, with Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer impotent, drowned out, unable to cut through in any meaningful way. But, for the Tories, the year ended in a dramatic collapse in popularity caused by a perfect storm of scandal and incompetence.

Mr Johnson is a formidable force, and has proven himself over 15 years to have been able to return from apparently permanent obscurity to secure logic-defying victories. But he is not immune to political gravity. The Downing Street flat renovations. The Peppa Pig speech. The Owen Paterson debacle and the resultant loss of the by-election. Most damagingly, the Downing Street Christmas parties, which has seen crisis communication at its worst.

As well as playing into the hands of Sir Keir in his pursuit towards Downing Street at the back end of next year, and into the hands of the Scottish independence campaign, the troubles in London are holing the good ship Scottish Tory below the waterline. Again.

It is a truism of life as a Scottish Tory that, no matter how hard you work or how well you do, your support is largely dictated by the popularity, or otherwise, of the party in London. This is why, from time to time, people like me suggest that the only way for Scotland’s centre-right to become a credible governing force, akin to other centre-right parties all over the world, is for it to form its own party, separate from the Westminster Tories.

There has never been a time when more Tory MSPs have told me, privately, that they agree. Perhaps 2022 will, finally, be the year of change. If it isn’t, Douglas Ross’s party will need to watch their back, for Anas Sarwar may be coming.

Nobody doubts the Scottish Labour’s leader’s quality. He is clever, strategic, popular, good with the media and personally engaging. But, thus far, he has been unable to break into the Sturgeon/Ross duopoly. This is largely because, although Labour’s ‘home rule’ constitutional proposal is likely to be the foundation for any enduring future for the UK, its compromising feel does not play well at elections. Voters are currently attracted to binary choices, which is what the Tories and the SNP offer.

Nonetheless, should Sir Keir become a credible Prime Minister who starts to put more flesh on the bones of home rule, and should the Scottish Tories’ descent in the polls be enduring rather than simply a knee-jerk reaction to their Westminster brethren’s acute troubles, Scottish Labour might look like a far more viable proposition.

This party many thought dead, which not so very long ago polled less than ten per cent in a national election (to the European Parliament in 2019), may find itself as the principal opposition to the SNP, and what’s more, an opposition with a constitutional plan beyond simply saying no to a second independence referendum.

2021 promised much and delivered little. 2022, at first glance, promises little. But watch this space.

• Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters

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