Things aren’t looking brilliant for the SNP, they say. Partway through their third term in office they seem a bit short of puff. Polling for Holyrood is down quite significantly on their 2016 result. And the last week before recess saw a double whammy of negative headlines, first with the shelving of a flagship Education Bill, then a reshuffle gone wrong. It’s no surprise some people are scenting blood and sizing up the prospects for a change of government. A few days ago, Ladbrokes tweeted that Ruth Davidson was the favourite to be the next First Minister. I don’t put quite as much stock in the betting markets as a former First Minister, however. Davidson may be the most prominent opposition leader, but that doesn’t mean she has an easy route to the top.
The immediate blockage in Davidson’s path to First Minister is that the SNP still look likely to have a clear lead in seats. Sure, it’d be their worst result since 2007, but that doesn’t equate to “losing”. Over projections from the past 5 polls (track here), the SNP have averaged 53 seats in parliament versus the Tories 30. There hasn’t yet been a Scottish Parliament election where the party with the most seats didn’t lead the government, and you have to go all the way back to 1931 to find a UK election where that was the case. Although common at council level, there just isn’t a culture of smaller party led governments in parliament.
Yes, going for a fourth term is a bit different to 2007, when the SNP claimed a moral mandate to govern with a single seat lead over Labour, and the Conservatives sat the vote out. It may not provoke general outrage, and nerds (like me) will point out that it’s perfectly legitimate. But it may still not seem like fair play to many voters to lock the “winner” of the election out of government. And given Theresa May’s tenuous position at Westminster, it’s not unlikely the next election could see the Tories come top but Labour better positioned to form a government. It’s a lot harder to argue your right as largest party to form the government when your Scottish arm is governing from second place.
Beyond that, some excitable commentators seem to forget that under the dominant constitutional bunfighting there is still the traditional left-right divide. The Pro-Union majority polls are currently suggesting doesn’t necessarily equate to an anti-SNP majority. Davidson can’t appoint herself First Minister, and the other Unionist parties aren’t in the bag. The Lib Dems seem least likely to outright object to a Tory government, but they might remember being burned before. 3 of their 5 MSPs will definitely remember having a lot more colleagues, before the Con-Dem coalition saw them crash and burn. Even if the Lib Dems are brought on side, they are a long way off giving the Tories the numbers they need.
Labour? Sure, they have a deep loathing of the SNP. They also have a deep loathing of the Tories. Remember, Corbyn-Leonard Labour is trying to stake out the left ground. A big point of criticism they have for the SNP is being too timid on progressive taxation to fund public services. The Tories have howled the rafters down the past two years at the modest progress made in that direction. That’s a big political chasm to bridge.
Besides, letting the Tories into government is guaranteed to further deplete their weakened voter base. It’s not exactly smooth sailing if they let an SNP government in either, in fairness, even by going “we’re not backing either side and are putting forward our own unwinnable candidate.” That’d rile up a different side of their voter base by damaging their unionist credentials. Whilst Labour remain in third place, there really is no winning for them.
So long as the SNP remain likely to come out as the largest party in Holyrood, the only realistic prospect of a non-SNP First Minister relies on Labour coming second. At that point, Davidson would have to put her money where her mouth is – if voting Tory means “stopping the SNP”, she’d have to back a Labour government. The Lib Dems might also find that situation marginally more palatable. Of course a lot can change in three years, and none of this will stop the Tories and the die hard #SNPOut brigade bigging up the prospect of Ruth Davidson in Bute House. But if I were you, I’d save that tenner for now.