Ruth Davidson isn’t going to leave the Tories to become leader of the Independent Group and she’s the only real option for voters who want a change of First Minister, writes John McLellan.
At Edinburgh Council, disparate independent political groups are so last year, so pardon me if I don’t share all the excitement created by this week’s serial walk-outs in Westminster.
One forced out, the others by choice, four Edinburgh councillors elected on a party ticket just 20 months ago now dot around the City Chambers, trying as best they can to maintain their relevance while avoiding a by-election to test whether the voters share their new-found convictions. After all the bally-hoo of their departure there is now bally-all, with only mild internal interest in seeing which party they favour with their support.
For the three Conservative MPs who took their collective pro-EU ball home this week I suspect it will eventually be the same, and a snap YouGov poll for The Times this week indicated that while the new bloc of independent MPs enjoyed an instant surge of support from 14 per cent of the electorate to take it into third place, it only took three points from the Tories who remain way out in front on 38 per cent.
The poll was taken before the Conservative departures, so maybe there will yet be more impact on the party’s support, but it certainly didn’t make any difference to our group on Edinburgh Council going into Thursday’s budget meeting.
One way or another Brexit will pass and there is not much to hold the new group together if it actually is their intention to form a proper party, but there will be no way back for the rebel Tory trio. If there is one thing the Conservative Party doesn’t tolerate it’s disloyalty and that’s something Scottish leader Ruth Davidson understands implicitly, which is one reason all the talk about her jumping ship to lead the independents had less basis in fact than a Harry Potter book.
But with the reasons for schism running far deeper than Brexit and support down to 26 per cent, it’s already looking grim for Labour. A new centre-left force can’t be dismissed, but at present little suggests that even with substantial figures like Chuka Umunna, Frank Field and John Woodcock their fortunes won’t be much different to the significantly bigger beasts like Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams whose SDP splinter in 1981 led to the creation of the Lib Dems in 1988-89.
What saved Labour then was the realisation that without holding the centre they were doomed and the party may yet come to its senses, but for Scottish Labour time is very short and the implications deeply serious. If you believe in a Socialist Nirvana, why vote for a party which looks less likely to deliver it by the day when there are alternatives? If you are a moderate social democrat not only is the party moving further away from power but doesn’t represent your views anyway.
The knock-on is the leftward drift of much of Scottish politics could continue if the SNP tries to take full advantage as Labour supporters on the left despair of ever getting regaining power. Move to the centre and they risk losing vital back-up from the ultra-left Greens. However, that won’t attract Unionist Scottish Labour centrists who accept a vote for the SNP brings another independence referendum closer and the £13bn fiscal deficit is too big a price to pay for the break-up of the United Kingdom.
Even if they can’t bring themselves to become Conservatives, at the next Scottish elections in 2021 they might be persuaded to give their votes to a moderate like Ruth Davidson to bring 14 years of SNP rule to an end. Opponents of the Scottish Conservatives are quick to dismiss her chances of becoming First Minister as pie in the sky, but are they really that fanciful?
Left, right or centre, Scottish Labour has a vacuum where the leader is supposed to be and most voters still wouldn’t recognise Richard Leonard if he punched them on the nose. Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray might hang on in there as a raft for other moderates but one man on a raft is not going to capture enemy ports.
The Lib Dems have also lost support to the new independents and while he might be more recognisable than Richard Leonard, no-one but the most blinkered Lib Dem die-hard believes Willie Rennie has an earthly. Patrick Harvie and the Greens? Well if you want an independent Scotland to be the Venezuela of the North, he’s your man.
Nicola Sturgeon has become a much more divisive figure than anyone could have predicted when she took over from Alex Salmond in 2014 and Ruth Davidson now presents the only credible alternative. Ms Sturgeon’s recent trips to the United States and France are more likely to be about positioning her as a figure of international stature in contrast to a rival Nationalists like to portray as frivolous, than the suggestion they were just tax payer-funded groundwork for life after Bute House. Whatever the reason, for those people whose attitudes against Ms Sturgeon are hardening, the foreign jaunts will have done nothing to alter their views.
The next Holyrood elections may be over two years away but with only one full parliamentary year left after June, in political terms that time will pass very quickly. No-one underestimates the amount of ground to be made up for the Conservatives to become the biggest single party, but for those who want a new Scottish Government, the Labour Party’s self-destruction leaves voters with little choice.
Voters played for fools over tram extension
As expected, the Edinburgh Council administration budget was voted through on Thursday, rubber-stamping £33m worth of cuts to council services, in addition to a £14m reduction in the health and social care budget.
It also means a charade for the next few weeks while SNP-Labour coalition councillors pretend that the £257m budget for the three-mile York Place to Newhaven tram line is still being considered, as if there is any chance whatsoever of the project not going ahead.
The Conservative proposal to divert £90m of revenues heading to the tram project to council services was dismissed earlier as a “fake dividend” by administration leader Adam McVey, but finance convener Alasdair Rankin conceded the council’s resources allow it to invest more in schools or the tram completion, but not both. In other words, it’s not a fake dividend but a real spending choice.
It’s all very well to argue the merits and demerits of the scheme, but to insist it has no impact on other council services just plays voters for fools.