After two surprise elections saw Tories go from humiliation to victory, what will 2020 bring? – Ian Swanson

With a big Commons majority behind him, Boris Johnson is unlikely to go to the polls early. Picture: PAWith a big Commons majority behind him, Boris Johnson is unlikely to go to the polls early. Picture: PA
With a big Commons majority behind him, Boris Johnson is unlikely to go to the polls early. Picture: PA
Scotland may not be showing signs of voter fatigue in the style of ‘Brenda from Bristol’, but anyone hoping for more elections next year may be disappointed, writes Ian Swanson.

IT was meant to be Scotland’s second year in a row when the public were not asked to go to the polls – but instead 2019 saw two unscheduled elections, meaning voters have turned out nine times in six years.

The first surprise election came when Theresa May failed to meet the March 29 deadline for reaching a Brexit deal and the UK was forced to go ahead with elections to the European Parliament, even though we were supposed to be leaving the organisation and our seats had already been reallocated to other countries.

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Mrs May had previously said taking part in European elections three years after the country had voted to leave the EU would be “unthinkable”.

She tried to avoid the election right up to the last minute, finally conceding with only two weeks to go that UK participation was after all inevitable.

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The result – which saw the Conservatives finish in fifth place behind the Brexit Party, the Lib Dems, Labour and the Greens – was a humiliation and an embarrassment for Mrs May and the Tories.

And it gave a huge boost both to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party as keepers of the Leave side’s true faith and to the Lib Dems as the most fervent pro-Remain party.

A divided nation

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But these two parties’ dreams of turning European election success into domestic dominance were shattered by the second surprise election of the year, when Mrs May’s successor Boris Johnson persuaded MPs to agree to a pre-Christmas election. He protested he did not want the election but insisted he could not avoid it because parliament was blocking his attempts to deliver on Brexit. This ignored the fact MPs had finally given approval in principle to the deal he presented and merely refused the unreasonable demand it should complete its passage with virtually no scrutiny.

This year also marked the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the departure of Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, one of the most dynamic political figures of the devolution era.

But the two unwanted elections summed up so much about the year and the state of Scottish and British politics – the deep divide in public opinion, the volatile fortunes of the parties and the dominance of Brexit.

During the general election campaign, the Tories attacked the SNP for wanting to make 2020 the year of two referendums – one on Brexit, the other Indyref2.

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They implied all right-thinking people could only regard such a prospect with horror. Perhaps they are right.

But is Scotland really a nation of Brendas from Bristol? There’s not much evidence that voter fatigue is a national disease here.

Although UK turnout was down slightly on December 12, the number going to the polls north of the Border was up 1.6 per cent on the 2017 general election – despite the distractions of Christmas shopping, school concerts, nativity plays and office parties.

All the constituencies in Edinburgh and the Lothians saw more people going out to vote on a cold winter’s day than in the summer election two years ago. But given the outcome, there will now be no second referendum on Brexit and although the SNP is pressing for Indyref2, it seems more likely this will come after the 2021 Holyrood elections. So 2020 might turn out to be a year when the public is not asked to vote at all.

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And although Mr Johnson has promised to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the fact he is firmly ensconced in 10 Downing Street with a comfortable Commons majority of 80 means there is little likelihood of a general election for another five years.

What will we do with ourselves in the meantime?