Sturgeon and May’s Political Poker

It is well known that the First Minister’s predecessor enjoyed a flutter – but Nicola Sturgeon has raised the stakes and embarked on the biggest gamble of all. She isn’t bluffing.

At the start of the week, SNP activists would have been enthused at the prospect of attending their party conference in Aberdeen following the news from Nicola Sturgeon’s Bute House press conference. The First Minister had seized the political narrative from Theresa May by setting out plans to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence at a time when the EU Withdrawal Bill was passed by the UK Parliament.

However, by its end, the Prime Minister attempted to ‘take back control’ of the agenda, arguing it was “unfair” to hold a second referendum before the UK’s future relationship with the EU had been made clear. “My message is clear – now is not the time”, she said.

Sturgeon and May have started to engage in the ultimate game of political poker. Who will blink first remains to be seen. However, one thing we know for sure is that the SNP Conference will be a fiery affair following the Prime Minister’s intervention.

Sturgeon’s #ScotRef Gamble

The last time SNP Conference was held in Aberdeen, it was claimed that the SNP would not push for another referendum until polling consistently registered majorities in favour of separation. Indeed, the First Minister told conference that “the time to propose another referendum will be when there is clear evidence that opinion has changed” and when it commanded majority support, a position reiterated by Deputy FM John Swinney who stressed the need for “strong and consistent evidence” that voters supported independence.

However, the Scottish Government now state they have a “cast-iron mandate” to hold a second referendum, after being elected on a manifesto noting any “significant or material change in circumstances” from that prevailing in 2014, including “Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will”, providing justification.

On Monday, the First Minister said that in order for Scottish voters to have a real choice on the country’s future, a referendum should be held between Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019, which would be towards the end of the Brexit negotiations. This was necessary as efforts at a compromise – allowing Scotland to remain within the European single market – had been met with a “brick wall of intransigence.”

Although the SNP don’t want people to think a future vote would be a simple re-run of 2014 (hence the use of #ScotRef not #indyref2), in procedural terms at least, they want an exact replication. Nicola Sturgeon made clear on Tuesday that any referendum must be, once again, “made in Scotland” with Holyrood responsible for its timing, franchise and question.

The danger for the Scottish Government is that the 2014 referendum had wide public support, something lacking today. On Wednesday, the Times carried a YouGov poll showing that only 38% backed independence and polls have repeatedly shown that most Scots currently oppose a referendum being held in the near future. The recently published Scottish Social Attitudes Survey provided another interesting dimension: rising Euroscepticism in Scotland. As it notes, holding a plebiscite on the basis of Scotland being dragged out of the EU against its will “may not necessarily provide the most propitious circumstances for nationalists to win a second referendum after all.”

The UK and Scottish Governments: Poles Apart

The Prime Minister was quick to dismiss calls for a second referendum, as well as its associated timetable, accusing the First Minister of engaging in a “tunnel vision” approach and “playing politics” with the future of the UK. The UK Government would obviously wish to avoid being convulsed in a battle to save one Union while undertaking torturous negotiations to exit another. Of course, there is no legal obligation for the UK Parliament to grant the Scottish Government the power to hold another referendum.

Later in the week, Theresa May announced that “now was not the time” for a second referendum but did not say whether she was ruling out another vote at some point in the future. Instead, she argued that efforts should be placed on securing the best deal in the Brexit negotiations: “It would be unfair to the people of Scotland that they would be being asked to make a crucial decision without the information they need to make that decision”. Scots would need to assess the Union after Brexit in order to make an informed choice; and voters would also need clarity about the SNP’s alternative.

Next week, however, the Scottish Government will lead a two-day debate at Holyrood on a motion endorsing the Scottish Government entering into discussions with the UK Government on a Section 30 order. As in 2014, a Section 30 order would temporarily transfer power to Holyrood in order to legislate for a referendum on Scottish independence. Come Decision Time on Wednesday, the Scottish Government will receive the backing of the Scottish Greens ensuring they receive a majority. The Greens have been criticised for this move, after previously stating that 1 million people would need to back a referendum in a citizen-led initiative before one could be held.

The Winner Takes It All

When questioned about her chances in the second referendum, Nicola Sturgeon said she had no intention of losing. But a second defeat would be catastrophic for the independence cause and her political career.

If Theresa May loses, she will go down in history as the Prime Minister who lost the Union, and would almost certainly resign.

As David Cameron can attest, holding high-stakes referendums on the constitution can be a risky political strategy. When the second independence referendum eventually comes to pass, the winner will take all.