Would a Corbyn minority government mean two further referendums?

Votes on EU membership and Scottish independence would be more likely but far from certain

November 26, 2019
Photo: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire/PA Images
Photo: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire/PA Images

The polls, for now, suggest a majority Johnson government. But for Remainers and supporters of Scottish independence alike, a minority Corbyn government still looks like the best route to achieving their aims. That may be true but there is no guarantee it will deliver what they want.

Corbyn doesn’t know or won’t say if his preferred Brexit deal is better or worse than staying in the EU. But Labour has promised a second EU referendum with a Remain option. And it is open as well to another Scottish independence referendum—though not in the first two years of a Corbyn government.

On paper, Labour’s EU offer should get the support of both Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party and of Jo Swinson’s Lib Dems. They both want to remain in the EU. And given that the SNP is putting its demand for another independence vote front and centre of its campaign, Labour’s stance should be positive on that score too.

But step back a bit and the route to two referendums via a Corbyn minority government looks tricky.

The latest Panelbase poll for Scotland puts the SNP on 40 per cent, the Tories on 28 per cent, Labour lagging on 20 per cent and the Lib Dems on 11 per cent. This would give the SNP 41 MPs compared to its current 35, mean the Tories lost only one of their 13 MPs but leave Labour with just one MP out if its current seven. With 63 per cent of Scots backing Remain, and 49 per cent supporting independence, Scotland’s disconnect from the rest of the UK is clear.

On these figures, the SNP would certainly be the third party at Westminster again, whoever is in power. And its demands are mounting up—an independence referendum in 2020, another EU referendum, and the abolition of Trident.

But the chances are a Labour minority government would need Lib Dem support too. Swinson insisted two weeks ago she’d prefer another election to supporting a Corbyn government. But would the Lib Dems, having put all their eggs in the Remain basket, really block the opportunity of another EU referendum—with the 31st January Article 50 deadline looming?

Yet the Lib Dems are strongly opposed to another Scottish independence referendum and would surely not keep a minority Labour government in power long, or at all, if one were promised. And the SNP is highly unlikely to support a Labour government in power without that commitment. And so the path to another EU vote might yet fall apart over rows about Scottish independence.

It’s hard to see more than a short-term way through. Another EU referendum by June 2020 could, just, get the temporary support of Labour, SNP and Lib Dems (though Corbyn could lose some of his own MPs on this, and it could be tight). This assumes too the EU will agree another Article 50 extension to allow this. But beyond that, it gets murky.

There’s no guarantee Remain would win another referendum—and Brexiters are likely to cry foul over the Corbyn “soft” Brexit alternative on the ballot paper (quite likely not so different to May’s deal). Either way, the SNP would then be on track to another independence vote assuming it had done a deal with Corbyn on timing. But the Lib Dems might then pull the plug on a Corbyn government, not wanting to be handmaidens to that.

Of course, if the UK remains in the EU, then the urgency of independence may wane—for some. But independence is also easier if the rest of the UK stays in the EU—no hard borders threaten in that case.

Meanwhile the current most likely scenario, of a Johnson government and Brexit by 31st January, will go down very badly in Scotland. It’s likely to lead to an increase in support for independence—spurred on by a Tory refusal to countenance another referendum. And where the SNP would go next on its independence campaigning—as the Scottish government and as the third party at Westminster—would become a key question.

The Holyrood elections in 2021 will loom large—with the SNP and pro-independence Greens campaigning for a majority again. But a quiescent Scotland waiting for its next vote is perhaps rather unlikely in the face of a Conservative government and Brexit.

As the Tories face their self-imposed Brexit challenge, in which the UK is the weak, supplicant partner in trade talks with the EU, demands for a say on Scotland’s own future will get louder. And the politics between London and Edinburgh will surely be sharp and antagonistic.

The path to another EU vote depends on the Tories’ lead over Labour shrinking considerably. Even then, managing the complex dialogue between Labour, the SNP and Lib Dems to get to a new referendum looks challenging—as does the path to another independence vote. But whatever the result of this election, the Brexit drama will continue to play out. And so too will the politics of independence.

Kirsty Hughes, Director, Scottish Centre on European Relations