Something quite big could be about to happen in UK politics: so big, in fact, that it could tear the place apart.
The Scottish National Party looks sets to pummel both Labour and the Liberal Democrats and take at least 45 (and probably more) of the 59 Scottish Westminster seats. If that does happen, and if Labour doesn’t underperform in England and Wales, then it looks like we’ll have a coalition led by Miliband and propped up by the SNP.
The SNP is a curiously old-fashioned party when it comes to left/right politics and any deal it does with Miliband will be built around protecting the welfare state. It will also be built around some sort of ‘understanding’ about an earlier than expected second referendum on Scottish independence: but on this occasion the SNP has time on its side and won’t, I think, want to move too soon. It will want to nail down some of the unanswered questions from the last referendum and it will also want to consolidate its position in the Scottish Parliament at next year’s elections.
Meanwhile, it looks likely that Ukip will pile up a few million votes yet win only a handful of seats at best. That’s mostly to do with an electoral system that doesn’t match votes with seats, but it’s also to do with the fact that this hasn’t been a particularly good campaign for the party. Farage has allowed himself to be pushed too far to the right by his advisers and that has made Ukip unattractive to some of the voters it needs if it wants to win seats rather than just come second in a lot of places.
But the very fact that the party wins a few million votes will worry Cameron. It will worry him because these are voters who want out of the European Union: and it will also worry him because there are probably an awful lot of Conservative MPs and voters who also want out of the EU. He, of course, is a Europhile and plans a ‘renegotiation’ which will give him something positive to sell at a referendum. He can’t get out of a referendum this time –but he clearly doesn’t want one. He fears the result.
Of course, all of this will be academic if Miliband and the SNP get the numbers for a coalition, because Miliband has no particular interest in an EU referendum: and nor has the SNP. But it’s going to be very difficult for him to say no to an EU referendum if, at the same time, he seems to be giving the nod to a second referendum in Scotland. Also, if Cameron doesn’t deliver victory of some sort on May 7 then the Conservatives (who haven’t really warmed to him after all this time) will dump him and replace him with an unashamed Eurosceptic: someone who will be willing to work with Ukip to build up pressure for that EU referendum.
In Northern Ireland the battle between unionism and Irish unity will continue as before. It still strikes me as unlikely that the DUP will have a significant part to play after May 7, but even if they do it’s quite clear that neither Cameron nor Miliband will offer them anything which has the potential to destabilise the Assembly or drive out Sinn Fein.
I’m pretty sure that the DUP are well aware of this, but it allows them a broader base than usual (more seats means more influence) for their campaign.
Nothing ever seems to change in Wales and this time it won’t be any different. Plaid Cmyru is still a minority interest in both the Assembly (11/60 seats) and Westminster (3/40). Labour will easily hold its own and may even add two or three seats. So Miliband isn’t going to have to do any deals there.
So, what are we looking at on May 8? Well, as it stands the odds seem to be in Miliband’s favour. There’s still a long way to go but Cameron’s inability to gain any break-away-from-the-pack momentum is likely to harm him more than Labour.
Also, Miliband will have a big SNP contingent who aren’t going to be propping up Cameron: and he will also hope to pick up Lib-Dem voters who believe that Clegg betrayed them.
What Cameron needs is a last minute swing from Ukip and a repeat of what happened in April 1992, when John Major pulled off a win that the opinion polls didn’t see coming. The problem with that scenario is that huge numbers of Ukip voters don’t trust Cameron on Europe.
Irrespective of the outcome there will still be huge problems. The SNP wants independence and will do what is required to deliver it. Millions of Conservative and Ukip voters want a referendum that takes the UK out of the EU: and a growing subset of that group also support the ‘English votes for English laws’ movement.
What we are going to see over the next 10-20 years is a huge battle about the future of the United Kingdom – and it’s going to become nasty. What worries me, as it did during the Scottish referendum, is that the pro-Union lobby is all over the place. They seem incapable of promoting an attractive vision and version of constitutional/geographical unity.
If the UK is to survive then it is going to need more coherent and more popular champions.