We have been living through a constitutional cold war, with a political stalemate between Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon over an independence referendum.
But as Bute House and Downing Street wait on tenterhooks for the results of the Scottish Parliament election, attention now turns to the key question of the election: will there be a mandate for a second independence referendum in Scotland?
The stakes could not be higher. For Boris Johnson, the battle for Britain as a Union of nations still hangs in the balance. For Nicola Sturgeon, this is an unmissable – perhaps her last – opportunity to be the First Minister to lead Scotland to a referendum, and independence.
Two Prime Ministers have refused to hold a referendum in the past seven years. First Theresa May and then Boris Johnson batted back any proposals for a second independence referendum.
But this election could change the political dynamic.
While an SNP majority government in Scotland, or a significant vote for pro-independence parties in this election, is not synonymous with support for a second referendum, it would make the case against holding a second referendum increasingly more difficult for the Unionists to make.
Since 2014, polling shows support for independence steady – even increasing in the last year. Something the Nationalists will seek to capitalise on is a majority in this election which will be seen as a mandate for a referendum. They view this moment as an unmissable – almost ‘now or never’ moment – to pursue independence.
For Unionists, they know they need to deny the Nationalists a majority. They also know they need to play for time – staving off a referendum until a rear-guard action can be mounted to counter the pro-independence surge in public opinion.
Boris Johnson must be both bold and cautious.
He must be cautious on a referendum – standing his ground without martyring the Nationalist cause and avoid prompting them to pursue the issue through the courts or a consultative ‘wildcat’ referendum that could cause significant political headaches. A difficult tightrope to walk.
He must be bold on reinvigorating the case for the Union and taking the fight to the SNP. The Nationalists may be setting this up as a question of democracy – who gets to decide Scotland’s future, Boris Johnson or the people of Scotland? – and that may be fruitful territory for boosting public support for a referendum, whatever your views on independence.
But as the election campaign has shown, the SNP still have huge questions to answer on the case for independence itself. This is the territory where Boris Johnson can win – and undermine support for a referendum.
That means a shift from the tactical safe ground that the Westminster leadership of the Conservatives have retreated to in recent times.
But the onus is not just on the Westminster leadership of the Conservatives.
The Scottish Conservatives also need to up their game significantly by finding a strong and charismatic leader in the Scottish Parliament who can inspire voters with a positive Unionist vision. At the moment, they are found wanting on that kind of leadership. With the new Ruth Davidson-approved candidates potentially winging their way to the Scottish Parliament shortly, it remains to be seen if a new talent can emerge and galvanise the Scottish Conservatives and Unionist cause.
It certainly looks likely that in the event of a SNP majority, and even a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, that the Scottish Government would seek to negotiate a Section 30 Order under the Scotland Act 1998 to hold another referendum at some point in the next Parliamentary term.
But irrespective of the size of a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, it does not change one simple fact: legally, it is crystal clear that it is the UK Government that can enable a referendum to happen.
There are, of course, alternatives to a mutually-agreed referendum. The Scottish Government, for example, may seek to legislate unilaterally for a consultative referendum. But they know that is a risky road to travel down – the messy example of Catalonia looms large in Nationalists’ minds and any legislation is likely to be challenged in the courts by the UK Government. It is far from certain that the Scottish Government would win such a challenge.
Therein lies the predicament for the Nationalists. For all that they may claim a mandate and have options on the table – there is only one route to a credible, internationally-recognised results on self-determination and that is a referendum agreed upon by the UK Government.
The UK Government knows the strength of their position. For all that this election may strengthen the Nationalists’ hand, it is Boris Johnson that still possesses the trump card. How he plays it could come to define his premiership.
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