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Will the EU and Scotland define the next UK Government?

It is only a little more than seven months before the UK electorate go to the polls. As the UK party conference season draws to an end, the pre-election atmosphere is becoming more and more febrile. The issue of European Union membership is a real fixation for the centre-right and right wing in the UK. Having a negative view of the EU seems to be a de rigueur badge of honour for them, writes chief political correspondent Tim McNamara.

Whilst the aftermath of the Scottish referendum has still to fully work its way through the UK’s body politic, there appears to be a fundamental shift taking place in Scottish politics that will impact negatively on the Labour party nationally. The Scottish Nationalist party (SNP) may well end up as coalition partners of Labour in the next UK government.

Although the polls indicate a small but consistent lead for Labour, a hung parliament, with no party having overall control is increasingly likely. The prospect of post-election negotiations to try and form a stable government is a real and enduring possibility. Unlike 2010, on present showing it would be highly unlikely that the Tories current coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, would play a significant part in such negotiations. Only a very tight race would let the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) in.

This raises intriguing possibilities, some of which have a remorseless political logic. After the Labour and Conservative (Tory) party conferences it is blatantly clear that they are both following a core vote strategy. Under Britain’s peculiar electoral laws, Labour could form a Government on its own with just 36% of the popular vote.

Because of the differing sizes of constituencies, the Tories need to reach +/- 40% of the popular vote to have a majority. Their respective strategies are heavily reliant on sending five or six key messages to their voters that resonate. For example, Labour wish to emphasise health care, fairness, redistribution taxes and economic responsibility based on growth not austerity. Being pro-EU forms a very small part of their pre-electoral ‘offers’.

The Tories want to fight the electoral battleground on the issues of economic rectitude, immigration (with an anti-EU bent), security, new anti-terrorism laws and the promise of an referendum on EU membership. Their main electoral advisor, Australian Lynton Crosby, will no doubt use ‘dog whistle’ messages to underpin their strategy.

All polling data indicates that the Conservatives can’t win a majority, their appeal in Scotland and the north of England continues to decline. It appears that there will be a real geographical split in the UK. Hence the Conservative heartlands will mostly be in the southwest and southeast of England with votes in the English midlands pivotal. It’s almost if it were the descendants of Anglos and Saxons versus the descendants of Celts, Picts and Norsemen.

Hence, the Tories’ main worry will be to fight off UKIP – the UK Independence Party – in many of their marginal seats and the issue of the EU will be the only political game in town. UKIP claim they can win 30 seats at the next election, these claims are probably fanciful. However, they may win some seats and diminish the Tory vote in others.

Daniel Hannan, the trenchantly Euro-sceptic MEP has, this week in the Daily Mail, called for an electoral pact with UKIP. He sees the real danger of UKIP eating into the Tory vote. Hannan’s views are little different to the leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage. Yet Hannan acknowledges an iron law of politics is unlikely to bring about an electoral pact BEFORE a general election.

Like most political experts Hannan knows that politicians, especially, and their supporters are tribal and that the apparent small differences between the parties are huge differences as far as political operators are concerned. A well-known Tory thinker, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, is also trying to advance the cause of an electoral pact with UKIP.

David Cameron won the leadership election to be where he is today. He vowed to stop the Conservative party “banging on about Europe” . Whether the Tories like it or not, the issue of the EU will dominate the election in at least 70 seats the Tories hold or hope to win. For three years Cameron was able to restrain his party from ‘banging on’ too much, but it appears the Tories and the issue of the EU has come full circle.

For Labour, the current polls give great succour to the party nationally. However, the party seems diffident and highly cautious. The leader’s speech at the Labour party conference was, to be kind, underwhelming. The atmosphere at the conference was flat and watchful. A large part of this may have been due to the hangover from the massive efforts the party made in the Scottish referendum campaign that only ended the week before. However, the conference did not feel as if Labour was preparing for government in a confident mood.

But dig beneath the surface of the polling data and there is one worrying development. There are 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland. Labour currently control 40 of them. Yet a recent poll (Electoral calculus, sampling dates 31/08 – 24/09) shows the SNP as the largest party in Scotland supplanting Labour. It also shows the Lib Dems losing 80% of their seats in Scotland.

This outcome would have the dramatic effect on Labour of losing ten seats and the SNP gaining 18 seats. The twenty three seats the SNP are projected to win may well be the difference between Ed Miliband, as leader of the Labour party, becoming Prime Minister as head of a coalition government with the SNP, or trying to run the country as a minority government.

Although most election outcomes are based on the state of the economy and how well-off the electorate feels, the UK 2015 general election may well be different. The economy will play a massive part in voters’ choices yet it is increasingly likely that those choices will not arrive at a clear outcome.

For various reasons it is increasingly likely that the issue of Europe and the results in Scotland may well play out in the post-election negotiations between the parties and decide who forms the next UK government.

Tim McNamara is head of the Peercourt consultancy firm. He was previously political editor at the European Commission.



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