Geoff Beattie: How Nicola Sturgeon will get her independent Scotland... in three years' time
Under pressure from a revived Labour party, a vulnerable prime minister Osborne could decide to strike a deal with the SNP.
It’s January 2019. George Osborne has been Prime Minister for six months. His predecessor, David Cameron, bowed out in the summer of 2018, two years after he won that famous victory in the EU Referendum, by a much more comfortable margin than anyone had predicted.
There is a fragile unity in the Tory Party, with Michael Gove firmly established as Deputy Prime Minister. The economy is growing again, after the mild global recession of 2017. But Cameron chose his moment to leave, just a few weeks after the Tories lost their tiny majority in the House of Commons. The Government has now been defeated four times by a tactical alliance of Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems – including on a Budget vote.
Osborne knows this can’t last until the election of May 2020. What move does he make now?
Meanwhile in Edinburgh, Nicola Sturgeon is still in unassailable control of Scottish politics. It’s almost three years since she led the SNP to its crushing victory of 2016, with the Tories sneaking past Labour into second place. For a while, opposition leader Ruth Davidson could make life uncomfortable for the First Minister. But she departed six months ago to join Osborne’s new Government. Now there is nothing and no one to stand in Sturgeon’s way.
The economic winds have been unexpectedly favourable for the SNP. Since the ‘supply squeeze’ of 2018, the price of oil has more than doubled, and is heading back to around $90 a barrel. Aberdeen is back in business. So is the central belt, after Sturgeon spent a great deal of political capital by giving the green light to the fracking industry.
And now the First Minister’s eyes turn south. Her prime target, Prime Minister George Osborne, is at a point of unprecedented vulnerability. He has no majority in Parliament, and is expected to lose two more by-elections in May. The tactical Lab-Lib-SNP pact is capable of inflicting defeat after defeat on his tired party and Government. Everything changed a year ago, when the hapless Jeremy Corbyn bowed to the inevitable and resigned. Sturgeon and Angus Robertson are doing good business with the popular new leader, Rachel Reeves.
Sturgeon knows that Osborne can’t continue like this all the way to the election. He needs a deal, and Sturgeon is prepared to give him one: ‘Independence Referendum 2. This time it’s serious.’
Just before she won her huge victory in the 2016 elections, Sturgeon promised that a second referendum would only come if the SNP earned ‘the right to propose it’.
It seems that moment has come. After so many years when the polling data was indecisive – with Yes and No constantly flip flopping over each other – a sea change in opinion appeared early in 2018. Yes to independence started moving consistently, decisively ahead. For at least six months, it has been in the lead by at least ten points, and often as much as fifteen.
Pollsters in 2019 are putting forward a number of key reasons for this change. The significant portion of the older voters who were most opposed to independence in 2014 have died. The views of the youngest voters back then – largely Yes – haven’t changed. And they have been replaced by a new generation who are even more comfortable with the idea of Scotland entirely running its own affairs.
It’s clear. The target of achieving a sustainable majority for independence has been reached. Now it is time for Sturgeon to press her advantage.
Sturgeon has met Osborne on two occasions since he became Prime Minister, although he has not been brave enough to venture north of the border. Despite his frosty public image, the SNP leader finds that she prefers dealing with him rather than Cameron. She knows two things fairly certainly about Osborne.
The first is that he is willing to do a deal – almost any deal – if he gains from it. The second is that Osborne is not burdened by the emotional attachment Cameron had for the United Kingdom. He has little or no empathy with the views of most Scottish voters. His Government is even more unpopular north of the border than it was under Cameron. The changing demographics of the UK mean that the Tories will always struggle to get a working majority without separation. The new Labour leader, Rachel Reeves, is giving him nightmares.
Osborne picks up the phone and invites Sturgeon to meet him at Chequers. She heads to the PM’s country house retreat knowing that this is her moment. Within twenty minutes of sitting down over drinks, Osborne breaks the news. She can have her referendum.
In return, the Lab-Lib-SNP alliance must be put to the sword. Osborne won’t try to push any ‘red line’ SNP issues through parliament before the election. But no more defeats on major Government business. And here’s the real sweetener. An independent Scotland will have the choice of continuing to use Sterling, or join the Eurozone if it prefers.
It’s a deal. Sturgeon heads out of Chequers elated, breathless. It has been agreed she can announce news of the referendum in Edinburgh, while Osborne does the same in London.
She thinks back to all the mistakes the SNP made before under Salmond. They are not going to happen again. Osborne, her partner of convenience, will quietly call off the hounds this time. There will be no more Project Fear. She will commission Glasgow University principal Anton Muscatelli to produce a detailed economic pathway to independence. No stone will be left unturned.
That only leaves the European Union. Sturgeon recalls the damage caused by the EU’s refusal to give an independent Scotland automatic membership.
That’s why her next trip is to Berlin, to the veteran but still powerful Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel.