If Scotland Votes ‘Yes’ on Thursday, What Next? #1 The Rest of the United Kingdom

by George_East on September 16, 2014


imageAs I wrote last week my own view is that Thursday night’s vote is likely to return a narrow No win. Nothing has happened since I wrote that post, to change my mind.  Indeed save for one ICM on-line poll at the weekend with a smaller than usual sample size, every poll, since the original Yougov poll which put Yes ahead instilled panic on the Westminster political classes, has shown No with a modest lead.

However, there are undoubtedly uncertainties around the polling given there is no base line against which the polling companies can weight their data and it is in any event close enough, for a Yes vote to be a distinct possibility.

So if we wake up on Friday morning (or if you are like me you have stayed up through the night watching the results) to find that the Scots have voted for independence, what next?

Tomorrow I’ll look at the impact on Scotland but first the remainder of the United Kingdom, or rUK. The impact is likely to be huge, as the country descends into a constitutional crisis the like of which it hasn’t seen since before the First World War, a constitutional crisis it seems to be singularly ill-prepared for, as the Westminster elites appear not to have taken the possibility of independence  seriously until the last couple of weeks.   Here are five very real possibilities:


1. David Cameron is toppled as leader of the Conservative Party


It is difficult to see how David Cameron survives a ‘yes’ vote. It is true that he has said that he will not resign if the outcome of the referendum is Scottish independence, but he has to say that, otherwise Alex Salmond would be gleefully running a ‘vote, yes and send Cameron packing’ two for one deal in his election literature.  It would also make keeping Labour voters onside for No even more of a problem.   However, to be the Conservative and Unionist Party leader who lost the Union (which will at the end of the day be the thing he will be primarily remembered for in the history books) is, I would suggest, all but untenable.

It would be one thing if David Cameron was soaring high in the polls and was loved by his party, but he is not.   The UKIP threat freaks out enough of his backbenchers as it is.  The Daily Telegraph has reported that up to 100 Tory MPs might be willing to move against him, if it is ‘Yes’.    Expect a huge operation over the weekend to shore up Cameron’s support (it is why the talk of a special session of Parliament on Saturday, rather than Monday is in fact unlikely).  Whether Gove, as Chief Whip, is able to persuade enough Tory MPs to back Cameron despite losing the union remains to be seen.


2. Ed Miliband is toppled as leader of the Labour Party


Although most of the focus has been on the position of David Cameron in the event of a ‘yes’ vote, the leader of the opposition’s position is only marginally more secure.   The polling is absolutely clear.  If Scotland is lost it is because a significant proportion of Labour’s traditional heartland vote in the central belt has been persuaded to vote ‘Yes’.  It is the reason why Gordon Brown has been deployed (by far the most impressive of the ‘No’ campaign’s major figures over the last couple of weeks) as he is assessed as being able to better speak to these voters than either Ed Miliband or former Edinburgh solicitor, Alistair Darling.

Two things will follow for Labour if it is a ‘yes’ vote. Firstly that Ed Miliband was simply unable to persuade core Labour voters than they should be confident in a Labour victory in the election next year and that such a victory will deliver what they need.  Secondly, that the electoral arithmetic (which the polls show is on a knife edge) will have moved significantly against Labour, given the loss of its Scottish Labour MPs.  Yes, of course, they will still be there at the next election but only on a temporary mandate until the final break away in 2016.  No government could credibly and democratically advance its policy agenda if it relied on such MPs for its majority.

The conclusion of many Labour MPs is likely to be that Westminster-centric Ed Miliband fell asleep on the job every bit as much as David Cameron.


3. The Coalition Collapses


A post-Cameron, post-Scottish independence vote Conservative Party is almost inevitably going to be in a febrile state. The pressures within the party will be from the right – to take a tougher line on the EU and immigration etc.  Much of the coalition’s stability has been based around the fact that the quartet at the heart of government get on personally.  Clegg, Cameron, Osborne and Alexander.

A Yes vote is likely to see the speedy exit of two of this four – Cameron (see 1 above) and Alexander, who can hardly be part of the negotiations on the rUK side for a Scottish exit from the union, as a Scottish MP. To his credit Alisdair Carmichael, the Lib Dem Scottish Secretary, has recognised this and has pledged to resign his seat in the cabinet in the event of a ‘Yes’ and join the negotiating team on the Scottish side (an offer that Alex Salmond has already indicated he will accept).

Can an inevitably more right wing led Conservative Party continue in coalition with the Lib Dems until May next year under a new Prime Minister.   It seems a bit of a stretch – only the Lib Dems desire to put off oblivion for a further 9 months could hold it together.


4. An Early Election


If the Coalition collapses, then there are two possibilities, the continuation of a Conservative minority government or an early election. Although the Fixed Term Parliament Act ensures that this parliament lasts the full five years, clearly an early election simply requires that Act’s repeal or the government to fall on a vote of confidence.

The negotiations with the Scots over the break up of the country was not anticipated by any of the parties’ in their 2010 manifestoes, for the simple reason that it was not even on the radar until the SNP’s resounding victories in the Holyrood elections of 2011.   What possible mandate does the current government have to negotiate the terms of separation, particularly in circumstances in which it will have been its tone deafness (and that of the rest of the Westminster elite), which caused the unthinkable to happen in the first place.  There is also the Boris question – if the Tories are looking to BoJo as their saviour (which many appear to do) then there has to be an election sooner rather than later for him to be a candidate (this though will be the very reason why the other prime leadership contenders George Osborne and Theresa May, will not want an early election).

In the uncertain atmosphere of collapse in the coalition and the toppling of the Prime Minister though, an early election may be the only way of re-establishing credibility and certainty in the governance of the UK. In those circumstances, turkeys might well vote for Christmas.


5. A UKIP surge


Before the Yougov poll showing Yes in the lead changed everything, the Westminster Village was obsessed with Douglas Carswell and the Clacton by-election, generally considered to be an almost certain UKIP gain.   This would have been a big enough story as it was, particularly as the by-election is scheduled to take place the week after the Tory Party conference (the last before the 2015 election) and on David Cameron’s birthday.

However, a Scottish vote for independence is likely to play into Nigel Farage’s hands. Firstly, it will confirm the uselessness and out of touch nature of the Westminster based parties, and that they cannot be trusted even to hold the country together.  Secondly, and more importantly the rush by all three main Westminster parties to offer the Scots the assurance of Devo-Max in the event of a No vote, without any proper debate or discussion, opens up a political vacuum for someone to ‘speak for England’.   UKIP will quickly (and to some extent have already with their proposal for an English parliament) move to fill that gap, and while the other political parties run around like headless chickens, will be poised to reap the benefit.

Clearly if a UKIP surge was to coincide with a collapse of the coalition, leadership contests in both major parties and an early election, we may find the nightmare scenario of UKIP winning swathes of seats in that early election becoming a reality. Scary times.


Tomorrow I’ll look at the potential impacts of a Yes vote on Scotland.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jackie_South September 16, 2014 at 5:59 pm

Interesting. As you know, I agree with your expectations on the outcome of the vote.

On Cameron, he may just be saved by BoJo’s selection. If enough Tory MPs see Boris as the viable successor, they may be willing to hang on to Cameron until the election. If Cameron goes before, my guess is Theresa May wins through – Osborne too much of a hate figure, Gove even more so (given that was the reason for his demotion), difficult to think of anyone else with the capacity for it until Boris returns.

On an early election, it is of course possible that the Coalition collapses but the Lib Dems support a minority Tory administration on a confidence and supply basis through to the general election. This gives the Lib Dems chance to develop more of a distinct identity before the election and holds off the fatal day for many of their members for a few months. In reality, I would think this practically means no real legislation goes through until Parliament dissolves perhaps early (end of March) with the exception being Lib Dem support for a fairly tepid budget.

One more possible consequence: an accelerated exit of rUK from the EU. Scotland looks likely to have to negotiate its way back to membership, and approval of. That membership is likely to require a new treaty. That probably triggers a referendum in the (r)UK under the current set of promises given by the parties, which is likely to lead to exit in any circumstances in the short-term.


Chris September 16, 2014 at 8:15 pm

There is one consequence of a narrow no vote, which I have been predicting since 2011, but which no political scientists or commentators, of whom I am aware, have identified. I have been boring family, friends and University colleagues with this, without any success. This might be because it is a daft idea. However, everything about the campaign suggests me that I might be right.

Traditionally, there has been a degree of split voting in Scotland with voters more willing to vote SNP for Holyrood, while voting otherwise, especially Labour, in Westminster elections. When the referendum was announced for 2014, together with the idea of fixed term UK parliaments, it struck me that it was perfectly timed for exactly the type of campaign that we have seen over the last few weeks, to generate a large showing for the SNP at Westminster in 2015, that could significantly affect the balance of power. Remember the Irish Nationalists in January and December 1910.

I even wondered in 2011 if Alex Salmond might an intended such an outcome. That, however, is probably a step too far.


Chris September 16, 2014 at 8:24 pm

If you want to keep my post would you mind changing “might an intended” to “might have intended” int eh last sentence, please. Apologies, I must learn to proof read better.


John Stone September 16, 2014 at 9:10 pm

Have to agree that UKIP will be big beneficiaries of a yes vote. And to be honest I increasingly feel that yes will win. The poverty of the no campaign, and the myopia of all three main parties may well have won it for Salmond. Truly we are going to hell in a handcart.


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