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The biggest loser. How Nicola Sturgeon did even worse than TMay

June 15th, 2017

Alastair Meeks who correctly predicted the SNP tsunami of 2015 and that the SNP would lose their majority at Holyrood in 2016 looks over last week’s Scottish general election results.

General elections are like forest fires for party leaders.  Within 24 hours of the 2015 election, Ed Mliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage had all resigned.  Paul Nuttall resigned as promptly after last week’s election, after the disappointing but expected loss of UKIP’s sole MP.  Tim Farron resigned before a week was out despite increasing the Lib Dems’ seat tally by a third.  Theresa May clings on by her fingernails, having lost 13 seats and the Conservatives’ majority.

Yet Nicola Sturgeon, the party leader who unambiguously did worst in the 2017 general election, remains in office, apparently untroubled.  Last Thursday the SNP lost 21 seats, just under 40% of their 2015 total.  In the last 50 years, only Nick Clegg for the Lib Dems in 2015, John Major for the Conservatives in 1997 and William Wolfe for the SNP in 1979 have seen worse declines for their parties.  All three lost their jobs in the aftermath, as you would expect – political parties should not reward failure.

Nor was this a narrow defeat.  In just two years, the SNP mislaid more than a third of their voters and a quarter of their vote share.  Angus Robertson, the leader of the party in Westminster, was among the casualties.  Alex Salmond, their reincarnation of Braveheart, was hewn down.  In Scotland at least, the Conservatives’ decapitation strategy worked.

There have been murmurings.  There have been calls for Peter Murrell, Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, to be stripped of his role as the party’s chief executive.  For now, however, the membership have been remarkably quiescent about a defeat that from the outside at least looks to be largely of Nicola Sturgeon’s making.

For now, the SNP still hold a majority of the seats in Scotland.  Beneath the surface the position looks considerably worse than that suggests.  22 of the SNP’s remaining 35 seats are held by a margin of 7% or lower.  In almost all of those seats, the SNP faces a clear unionist challenger.  The omens for the SNP in the next general election look grim.  Even if their vote share stays the same, they might lose a lot of seats simply from increased tactical voting by better informed electorates in each constituency.

The safest SNP seat in Scotland would fall to a swing of under 8%.  They suffered swings against them of more than twice that in some constituencies last week.  The volatility that worked so well for them in 2015 has left them looking potentially vulnerable everywhere.

All this leaves Westminster’s Nats in a vice.  They really cannot afford an early election: they need to wait for the polls to turn and that will take some time.  So they must manoeuvre to avoid the government falling.  Equally, they have sworn for decades never to do deals with the Conservatives, who on the current numbers in Parliament are the only party capable of forming a stable government.  If they break that vow, their supporters will turn on them with fury and Labour will receive an enduring polling boost.

So somehow they need to contrive to ensure that the Conservatives remain in power until their fortunes turn, but not to be seen doing so.  This is good news for the Conservatives, who can probably treat the SNP as reliable enemies in Westminster.  It is also good news for Labour, who should be able to contrive plenty of opportunities to show themselves to Scottish voters as more reliably anti-Tory than the SNP.

Unless the polls in Scotland move fairly quickly, this Parliament looks set to be harrowing for the SNP.  They could easily find themselves being pulled apart by Labour and the Conservatives.  They need to develop a new strategy fast.  They seem to think they can do so under a leader who has just taken them rapidly backwards.  You have to wonder why.

Alastair Meeks