They trade horses, don’t they?
I couldn’t help but notice the Scotsman’s article quoting Tory and LibDem sources as both agreeing something which I suggested in the New Year: that the party in first place after May won’t necessarily end up in Bute House. Instead, it’s all about horse-trading, and getting to that magic number of 65.
So what are the permutations?
On the face of it, with the Tories being the party most willing to co-operate with the SNP, and Annabel Goldie having hinted that she’d prefer to work with the SNP than with Labour, this looks like a goer.
But there are several problems: firstly, that co-operation has been borne out of necessity. The minority Government has offered the Tories their first chance to actually influence the path of legislation, while the SNP has needed their support as more often than not, it hasn’t come from anywhere else, and in any case, the last thing the Tories wanted was to prop up a Labour administration at Holyrood while trying to eject one at Westminster. In terms of actual ideology, the two parties are polar opposites: the SNP are a pro-independence party on the Left; the Tories a pro-Union party on the Right. It can’t work. Can it?
But even if it did, the SNP have a block on working with the Conservatives and have spent decades trying to ditch the “Tartan Tory” label bandied about by opponents. Getting into bed with them, particularly when the Tory-led Westminster Government’s spending cuts start to actually bite is a massive political risk for the SNP.
On civil liberties, justice, the local income tax and higher education, the LibDems and the SNP are on the same page. So this is a no-brainer, right?
Wrong. The LibDems – certainly at Leadership level – despise the SNP on a personal basis (every attack specifically mentions Alex Salmond) and the current Leader is said to have torpedoed any possible negotiations four years ago. Perhaps it’s because the two parties are close enough to be competing for the same votes, but whatever the reason, the two groups don’t usually get on and any difference is exploded to apocalyptic levels, such as on the independence referendum, where the LibDems demanded that the SNP drop that plan before Coalition negotiations even began. And indeed, that’d be a stumbling block again, with one added complication: differences over how to react to a referendum generated a row out of nowhere at the 2009 Federal LibDem Conference, after which the Leadership eventually got its way, but only after publicly slapping down the Party’s MEP and a candidate in a key target seat. Even considering talking to the SNP would rip that wide open again.
Besides, the SNP’s position on the political Left notwithstanding, the LibDems are still in the doghouse for coalescing with the Tories at Westminster, and many supporters across the UK will hope for a deal with Labour to re-assure them that the LibDems haven’t burned their bridges completely. The sight of the LibDems in Coalition with everyone but Labour will cause great distress and could possibly be the straw that breaks the back of the party left.
Now, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I was taking the mickey with this one – a pact between the two parties vying for Government at Westminster, who like nothing better than to knock seven bells out of each other?
Look more closely. The two parties are in the same place constitutionally, in the same place on local taxation (they both want to stick with the Council Tax), in the same place on tuition fees (they like them) and on justice. Neither party would have to move very far for a workable deal and the parties have often co-operated to stick it to the SNP on issues such as the Edinburgh Trams. Besides, for all the hostility, Scottish Labour has never been above backing the Tories when it suited their purpose: their submission to the Kilbrandon Commission pointed out that they’d prefer a Tory Government at Westminster to a Labour-led Scottish Parliament and though things have moved on since then, Gordon Brown did attempt to engineer a Grand Unionist Coalition to keep out the SNP four years ago and even said that he stood with Margaret Thatcher on the Union! If the price of getting into Bute House is to get their with Annabel Goldie’s support, they’ll go for it – as Huguenot-until-he-became-King-of-France Henry of Navarre said, Paris is well worth a mass.
But for the Tories, this would be political hemlock. After berating Labour for their lack of fitness to govern, installing a Labour First Minister would be crackers. In fact, the idea was floated in 2007 and the party’s activists went completely daft. This ain’t going to fly if the Tories have a choice.
The LibDems are now in Coalition with the Tories at Westminster, and on a number of the issues that will keep cropping up – public spending priorities, local taxation, justice, higher education funding – over the next few years, there is a gulf between Labour and the LibDems.
But that gulf was bridged for eight years, don’t forget, and the two parties still co-operate regularly at Holyrood: both sides hate the SNP sufficiently to co-operate.
That said, it’s a big risk for Labour: a number of key, easy gains this May will doubtless come against the LibDems. The LibDems handled the Lab-Lib Coalition at Holyrood far better than Labour did and doubtless made their electoral gains during that period (primarily against Labour) on the back of it. This Coalition would do more than anything to rehabilitate the LibDems (at least in Scotland), and would wipe out those gains in 2015, probably stop an advance against them at Westminster and thwart a number of local election possibilities, most notably in Edinburgh, where the two parties are vying for Leadership of the Council.
So all of the permutations carry severe risks for one of the parties involved. But there are other factors. Firstly, neither of the big parties particularly fancy a Coalition and would prefer a minority government – though being able to secure the Budget might make Confidence and Supply an attractive option. So if one of Labour or the SNP is in a commanding enough position to be able to choose their partner, then any agreement, whoever it’s with, will be far looser than if one of the Tories or the LibDems holds the clear balance of power.
And there’s always the possibility that once again, no viable two-party Coalition would get us to 65. In which case, the Greens come into play. They’ll probably baulk at getting into bed with the Tories, and given that after signing that initial agreement with the SNP in 2007, the two parties have been at loggerheads over pretty much everything ever since, it follows that they’d prefer a Labour-LibDem-Green alignment. But beware! Relations between the SNP and the Greens deteriorated very quickly, and one factor was the switch in Co-Convener from Robin Harper, who is just a nice guy, to Patrick Harvie, who isn’t afraid of a bit of political rough and tumble. He got into rows with Alex Salmond and he’ll get into them with Iain Gray. Moreover, when there’s Coalition trouble, the LibDems were better at just gritting their teeth and sucking it up – I don’t believe the Greens will do that, they will have a row and they will walk out. Any agreement with the Greens will be just like the one made four years ago by the SNP: very loose and very, very temporary.
So after all that, what do we know?
Absolutely nothing. Basically, we can’t say who’ll end up in Bute House, or even who’ll put them there. It’s going to be a fascinating three months.