Yesterday, Douglas Ross talked about what everybody interested in Scottish politics should have been talking about for months. What happens if the SNP and their gardening wing don't have an overall majority at Holyrood in May next year?
That is much more of a possibility than conventional opinion allows. However, as I have pointed out elsewhere, conventional opinion has a vested interest in a narrative that an SNP majority is inevitable and so all attention should focus on there being to come, somehow, a second independence referendum.
But, as you will surely know, I am on twitter a lot. And for a long time I had as my pinned tweet one sent initially early in the morning of of Friday 6th May 2016, pointing out, based on early results, that the SNP were about to lose their overall majority. As I watched the live TV on the night, it was about two hours before those commentating acknowledged that this was happening, despite it surely being obvious to the informed participants. Because conventional opinion in advance deemed such an outcome inconceivable. Even after it had long since been conceived by the votes of the actual electorate.
So let me start by conceding the most likely outcome of a Holyrood election next May. The SNP, possibly relying on The Greens, will still have a majority in the chamber. And the second most likely, they will still have a plurality. But if you express that second result a different way? The second most likely outcome of the next Holyrood election is that the SNP and their allies will no longer have a majority. For a second independence referendum or, unless they cobble together votes on an issue by issue basis, for anything else. In 2016, the SNP lost six seats. If that happens again, and the Greens simply stand still, the second referendum game's a bogey but Scotland will still need a government.
So why has there been an utter silence on this? As New Labour stored up opinion poll lead over opinion poll lead in the run up to the 1997 election, there were still counterfactual pieces written about what a fifth continuous Tory term might mean. As we in turn stumbled to defeat in 2010, reams written about the potential post election landscape. In Scotland however? Complete silence from the commentariat about what, as I say, is the second most likely outcome of an election six months away. An outcome about which current polling suggests is improbable but hardly impossible. An outcome, in terms of no Party and its obvious allies having an outright majority, being what PR systems normally produce.
Yesterday, Douglas Ross did us all a favour by breaking that silence. The Tories would do a deal with anybody except any party proposing a second independence referendum. And, to be fair, our own current leader, Richard Leonard, responded almost immediately. We would do a deal with anybody except the Tories. I have literally no idea why he said this.
Logically it would mean that if he had come an improbable second to an SNP/Green block denied an overall majority, his immediate response would be to offer that block continued support as the government of devolved Scotland. Because he would never do a deal with the Tories. Even if Douglas Ross tracked him down on a picket line somewhere and begged him to become First Minister, even offering to take his place and hold his placard while he got on with the job, Richard would still never do a deal with the Tories. Really?
Dare I suggest it is not as simple as that. Let's model my six losses for the SNP, assuming an equal division of spoils. It gives you 57 Nats, 6 Greens, 33 Tories, 26 Labour and 7 Libs.
Now let's look at the law. The aftermath of an Scottish Parliamentary election is dictated by sections 3 and 46 of the Scotland Act 1998. Unlike at Westminster, a First Minister does not remain in office until someone else is appointed. Rather, within 28 days the new Parliament must elect (or re-elect) a First Minister. If they do not, then there is another election. The Parliament itself can't change this because it is in the Act. Simple as that.
The First Minister so elected has to win a majority of votes cast, so, if, on my model, the three "unionist" parties voted consistently against any SNP nominee but failed to take any other initiative, there would be another election.
But why conceivably would they do that? "Unnecessary" elections are never popular with the electorate. Those responsible never prosper. They are also expensive. And refighting an election on the platform that the choice was either continued stability (of sorts) with a returned SNP majority or, alternatively, probably a third election. Really?
So there would be a mutual "unionist" interest in their not being an immediate further contest. At least until the Autumn of 2021, probably, assuming the local government elections still go ahead, until the Autumn of 2022 at the earliest.
But what happens in between!!!???
Surely the unionist parties also have a mutual interest in denying the SNP the advantages of continued incumbency? Of using public money to subtly and sometimes even not so subtly promote their separatist agenda. Of using the power of patronage to reward their friends or the threat of patronage withdrawn to silence their critics. And that logically must involve Labour talking to the Tories about some sort of interim administration.
Now would this be difficult or far from perfect? Of course it would. Labour and the Tories are agreed about the failures of the SNP but have radically different solutions. No Labour Party would support the criminal justice changes Douglas Ross proposed yesterday just as no Tory Party would support the permanent nationalisation of Scotrail. Much of the criticism of the SNP for being unwilling to do anything "bold" for fear of imperilling that part of their electorate with a vested interest in the status quo, would undoubtedly carry forward to an administration unable to do anything bold because the bold things the Tories would do would horrify us and vice versa.
But such an administration would not be without potential opportunities where we and the Tories (and the Libs) actually do agree. I say that particularly in relation to local government. We are entirely agreed that the failure to pass Barnett funding on to local authorities must stop. We are entirely agreed local government must be given more power and more respect. Written in to law. Although this would require a policy change on Labour's part, we might now be strangely agreed on directly elected Lord Provosts. We might even be able to find a way forward on non-domestic rates reform.
We would also have a mutual interest in rebranding the Scottish Government to reflect its true constitutional status. No more Saltires (alone) on everything from letterheads to commemorative plaques. No more overseas embassies. A happy embrace and acknowledgement of projects directly funded by the UK Government. Agreement with the UK Government when possible and respectful disagreement when required. But with the emphasis on respectful.
I also think there is probably more agreement than you'd think on Pandemic recovery, using the powers of the Parliament to support small businesses and the Green revolution coming to assist the private sector (yes) in exploiting Scotland's natural resources in this regard.
I couldn't see such an administration lasting five years. We and the Tories have too many genuine differences of opinion for that but I could certainly see it having a useful two years. While the SNP tore themselves apart over their (supposed) missed opportunity after Brexit and worked out that they hadn't known what they had with Nicola until she was (surely) gone.
The big question however remains which Party secures the key position of First Minister. I can't conceive of us ever voting for a Tory FM or indeed them ever reciprocating. My answer would be neither. It should go to the third member of the triumvirate, the Lib Dems, on the understanding that this was to be a collegiate administration with the incumbent more chair than chief executive.
But I also want to finish by stating one further clincher argument for Labour. If the Nats lose their majority and Labour stands aside, we will eventually get to a situation whereby the SNP, having been perceived to have lost the election, are nonetheless being kept in power by the Labour Party. If he had thought that through, that's above all why Richard should not have been so speedy in his response.