Back when there were still rules to politics, one of them was this: a government in power for a long time with nothing to show for it is a goner come the next election.
By that logic, Nicola Sturgeon should be savouring her remaining time in Bute House before the removal men come to pack up the biggest Saltire collection this side of the Tartan Army.
Events could hasten her exit but if she leads the SNP into Holyrood’s 2021 election, seeking to extend an administration creaking under 14 years of dismal delivery, there is no guarantee the voters will spurn her. Indeed, the smart money is that they won’t because, for all Sturgeon will have against her, she will have the same thing going for her that Margaret Thatcher did: there is no alternative.
It’s said that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them, but there has to be an opposition worthy of losing to. That opposition must carry itself with the confidence of an alternative ministry, capable of assuming the reins of power at a minute’s notice.
The vagaries of proportional representation and an anti-SNP vote split three ways makes life all the more difficult for the opposition at Holyrood, but, if we are honest, that is not the source of the problem. Peer at the blobs of blue and red either side of the SNP and it is hard to make out anything resembling a government in waiting.
For the avoidance of doubt, this is not an endorsement of the status quo. What the Nationalists have done to our education system, the hard-won progress they have set in reverse, is nothing short of social vandalism. Their ineptitude on health has degraded an NHS that was once a source of national pride.
Worst of all, they have brought to Scottish public life a political sectarianism as bilious and senseless as anything the Orange and Green have to offer. Given a choice of being governed by the current Scottish cabinet or the members of a randomly selected bus queue, I would take the bus queue every time.
Yet this ministry of mediocrity faces no serious challenge to its political future because of an opposition that lacks ideas, gumption and credibility. Two years ago, I warned the Scottish Tories to buck up their ideas, writing:
‘The party needs better candidates and more rigorous vetting. Some of the characters who slipped through during the local elections were an embarrassment and a few of the MSPs would struggle to recognise themselves in the street… While [Ruth] Davidson has carried them this far, the rest of the party will have to put its shoulder into it if it wants to get over the line. There are a number of frontbenchers who sorely need to toughen up and several behind them who ought to be put on notice to raise their game.’
Those words didn’t win me any friends but I stand by them still today, and I reckon the facts have come down all the heavier on my side since.
The Scottish Tories have made plenty of noise but not so much as a dent in the SNP’s grip on power. They are expert in railing against the SNP, denouncing their failings in government, and declaiming Nicola Sturgeon’s partisan priorities, but 12 days ago 45 per cent of the country still turned out to endorse the Nationalists.
There were huge forces at work in the election — not least Brexit and Scexit — but there is an unavoidable truth about the results: after 12 years of incumbency, the SNP went forward and the Tories backwards. Not all of this can be blamed on the unpopularity of Boris Johnson. The main opposition at Holyrood has singularly failed to convince the voters of Scotland. The country simply does not see the Scottish Tories as a credible alternative to the SNP.
Losing their leader suddenly amid the hurly-burly of Brexit was not easy, and Jackson Carlaw has provided stability and good humour while putting Nicola Sturgeon on the defensive at First Minister’s Questions. Beyond him, however, the Holyrood group is uninspiring in places and forgettable in others. There is an inertia that looks like cluelessness but, in fairness, may just be laziness and a general lack of energy and dynamism. The collective noun for a group of Scottish Tory MSPs is a snooze.
There are notable exceptions, of course, Glasgow MSP Annie Wells is tough and tenacious and unafraid of hard work. Murdo Fraser has lost none of his facility for winding up the First Minister and pensive Gael Donald Cameron continues to be a keen and insightful mind.
Then there is Adam Tomkins, the Tories’ constitution spokesman who really ought to be their leader. He is obviously frustrated by the limitations of ministers and of the MSPs meant to hold them to account and it tells on a weary face when those across from him try to debate the finer points of the constitution. Tomkins is the John Millar Professor of Law at Glasgow University, while some of the people he is pitted against at Holyrood think Jus feudale is a recipe from Nigella Lawson’s new cookbook.
Beyond this, the Scottish Tories are afflicted by a paucity of talent and too many MSPs are either unable or unwilling to do the hard yards required to keep on top of Cabinet ministers. Health secretary Jeane Freeman is failing to turn around the crises she inherited in waiting times, mental health and staffing numbers, and yet her Tory shadow cannot lay a glove on her.
Justice secretary Humza Yousaf should be cringing at the prospect of questions on the dysfunctional Scottish Police Authority. Instead, the new dad is losing far more sleep thanks to his little one than he is to his Conservative opposite number.
Such is the complacency among Scottish Tories that some openly prophesy that next year’s Alex Salmond trial will do all the hard work for them. Bear this crassness in mind next time the Tories get on their high horse about victims’ rights and the sacred integrity of the justice system.
It’s not just a problem with the Tories, either. Since losing the election, Scottish Labour has been embroiled in that other great party tradition: factional squabbling. A phalanx of Young Turks who fear they will never see ministerial office have let it be known that they are now open to another referendum on Scexit. Old hands who toiled through the bitter Better Together years know abandoning the Union is the end of the road.
The next generation of leaders might be prepared to sell out to nationalism but it’s far from guaranteed there will still be a party for them to sell out. Most of the base has already fled to the SNP, the more Unionist-minded to the Tories, and the party lacks a clear constituency these days.
When Labour left office in 2007, around one in five children were living in poverty. By 2021, after 14 years of SNP government, the figure is projected to exceed one in three. A Labour Party that continues to lose votes to that record is one that no longer has any reason to exist.
Unionists are driven mad by Sturgeon, sent round the bend by the SNP’s defiance of political gravity, but too few are willing to confront why the Nationalists are able to sustain themselves so long in office with precious few achievements to their name. It’s because many voters look at the alternative and see no alternative at all.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Nicola Sturgeon is on course to win again in 2021 but there is no rule that says her opponents have to give her a free run. While dislodging the SNP from power seems unlikely at this point, there is scope to reduce their numbers at Holyrood and block a pro-Scexit majority.
That would constitute a victory for Unionists, but to pull it off they will have to get their act together and knuckle down to some old-fashioned hard work. It’s not enough to hate the SNP, you have to beat them, too.