John McDonnell has caused a stir over recess with an interview he gave to Iain Dale at the Edinburgh Fringe. The shadow chancellor suggested that Westminster should not decide whether Scotland gets a second independence vote – instead it should be up to the Scottish Parliament. As Stephen writes on Coffee House, this is most definitely not the Scottish Labour line. The comments were also made within 24 hours of Nicola Sturgeon suggesting she’d be willing to work with Labour to ‘lock the Tories out of government’.
So, with a general election now seen as inevitable within the next six months – is the prospect of an SNP/Labour pact an open goal for the Tories? Scottish Tories have been quick to jump on the comments as proof that Scottish Labour is not a unionist party (I’ll be asking former Scottish Secretary David Mundell for his thoughts on Thursday at the Fringe) and those who want to protect the union ought to instead look to the Tories. In the 2017 election, the pro-Unionist message was effective in Scotland and is largely credited for the Scottish Conservative resurgence. Meanwhile in 2015, David Cameron’s campaign warning against a ‘coalition of chaos’ with Ed Miliband in hock to Scottish nationalists if Labour formed a minority government was effective.
John McDonnell and Nicola Sturgeon giving lip service to such an arrangement ought to be election gold for the Tories. However, these day it’s not so simple. The shambles of the past few years along with the Tories’ DUP pact means that the party is no longer so comfortable making a ‘coalition of chaos’ argument. While Scottish unionists will push the message, the prospect of a no-deal Brexit (which Boris Johnson has said he will pursue if a deal can’t be struck) is also something many of those same Scottish Tories have said could threaten the union. There are senior Tories who believe the strongest attack line against an SNP and Labour pact would be how much it would cost voters – arguing that it would mean higher taxes and lots of money going to Scotland rather than parts of England in need. If such an argument was made by Tory MPs in a general election campaign, it could cause difficulties for the Scottish Conservative message.