Ian Swanson: Year ahead may treat us to election-free politics

No-one has yet emerged to mount a serious challenge for Theresa May's job. Picture: PA
No-one has yet emerged to mount a serious challenge for Theresa May's job. Picture: PA
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THE past two years have been a political rollercoaster full of surprises – from Donald Trump to Brexit to the snap UK general election.

At almost every turn, voters confounded the expectations of experts and events seemed to develop a life of their own.

So what lies ahead in 2018?

No prizes for guessing that Brexit will dominate again. But making any predictions beyond that is a risky business.

After the Holyrood elections and the EU referendum in 2016 and then the local elections and general election last year, 2018 might just turn out to be that rarity in modern Scotland – an election-free year.

If Nicola Sturgeon had not had to “reset” her referendum strategy, we could be looking at a fresh vote on independence in the autumn. The timeframe she announced in March was for a second referendum between autumn 2018 and spring 2019.

But the idea of a fresh referendum is now effectively off the table until after Brexit. Latest polls showing public opinion has not shifted much since 2014 and the SNP’s disappointing general election result do nothing to make the First Minister want to risk a new independence bid any time soon.

A Westminster general election should not be ruled out. Theresa May’s catastrophic mistake in calling that snap poll last June left her without a majority in parliament and the immediate view was she could not last long.

But no-one has yet emerged to mount a serious challenge for her job and the Tories’ fear of a new general election handing the keys of Number Ten to Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has helped keep Mrs May in office.

But she has been buffeted by events, not least the loss of three ministers in two months – Michael Fallon, Priti Patel and Damian Green all having to quit for various reasons. And whenever she seemed to come out on top – securing EU leaders’ agreement to move onto the next stage of the Brexit negotiations, for example – she received another setback. Will there come a time when the party decides it is time to thank Mrs May for her efforts and choose a new leader?

Perhaps there would be no clamour for another election after all and the Tories press on until the 2022 election, allowing the new prime minister to bed into the role and dashing Labour hopes.

But the trials and tribulations of the Brexit process are likely to influence whatever happens on the domestic front every bit as much as future international relations.

So what about that other “second referendum” – the possibility of a new vote on Brexit?

The Lib Dems have proposed a fresh referendum on the final deal negotiated by the UK Government and EU leaders, timed for December 2018. They say that would fit with the two-year timetable for UK withdrawal from the EU in March 2019.

But they say it should be preceded by a 12-week campaign starting in September to allow plenty time for the options to be debated – which would only give nine months to agree a deal.

That might sound appealing to Brexit sceptics. And the SNP has been warming to the idea of a second EU referendum. Labour is likely to remain opposed to a new vote. But stranger things have happened.

One senior Scottish politician described 2017 as “2016 on speed”. Who knows what the verdict will be on 2018?