Why Conservatives are talking up a Labour-SNP coalition
My wee prime minister
SPRING is in the air in Westminster and the Conservatives are upbeat. Having lagged behind the opposition Labour Party in polls for most of the past five years, they are now narrowly ahead two months before the general election. The Tories'clear messages on the economy mainly account for these green shoots (see Bagehot). But an additional explanation is emerging 400 miles to the north: the rise of the secessionist Scottish National Party (SNP).
Since the 1980s Scotland has been Labour’s granite-like electoral base. Though often run by Scots, the party hardly had to think about the country north of Hadrian’s Wall. When the SNP failed last year to win a referendum on Scottish independence, Labour expected it to fall apart, remembers one shell-shocked former staffer. Instead the opposite happened. The SNP has hoovered up the sprawling, leftish Yes (to independence) movement and turned it into a campaigning machine. The party’s membership has grown from 26,000 to 100,000 in six months. Polling published by Lord Ashcroft, a Tory peer, on March 4th suggests that it is on track to take most of Labour’s 41 seats in Scotland, including some of its oldest strongholds.
This helps the Tories in several ways. The first is practical: Labour must divert scarce campaigning resources north to fight for once-safe Scottish seats. The second concerns electoral arithmetic. Even if no party emerges from the election with a majority, as looks likely, the one with the most votes will enter coalition talks with momentum and authority. Nick Clegg, the leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats, says that he will speak to the biggest party first—as he did in 2010, when he formed a coalition with David Cameron’s lot. The fewer seats Labour wins, the better the Tories'chance of being in that position and thus of holding power.
But the main reason for Conservative cheer is that the nationalists'rise may force Labour to seek an accommodation with the SNP. The latest projection by Election Forecast, a group of political scientists, suggests that Mr Miliband will lack the numbers to govern without the backing (or, at least, tolerance) of the party’s MPs. Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP’s leader, appears to be preparing for such an arrangement: she has assured Scottish voters that her party will never prop up the Conservatives, and on March 6th confirmed that its opposition to Britain’s nuclear deterrent would not block a deal with Labour.
Tory strategists believe that the prospect of a Labour government reliant on the support of MPs who would shatter the United Kingdom horrifies the English. They are gleefully talking up a Labour-SNP deal in the hope that it will cost Labour votes south of the border. In February Mr Cameron claimed that the two leftish parties were “halfway up the aisle” and preparing for “a honeymoon in North Korea”. On billboards in English marginal constituencies a Conservative poster depicts a huge Mr Salmond with Mr Miliband in his pocket.
Tactically, this is smart. Labour frontbenchers wriggle when asked about the SNP, denying that a deal is “on the agenda” but refusing to rule it out. Yet the Tories'ruse could backfire. Humza Yousaf, an SNP bigwig, claims that Mr Cameron’s theatrics will “only increase our support in Scotland”. He has a point. Last September the prime minister begged the Scots to stay, saying that he would be “utterly heartbroken” if they seceded. Yet his recent attacks on the SNP can only strengthen the nationalists'claims that the English and the Scots are better off apart. Mr Cameron may protest that he is merely trying to win a second term. But at what cost to the union?