Published:

John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister of Scotland, has survived a vote of no confidence in the Scottish Parliament. Holyrood split along constitutional lines, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats supporting the Conservative motion whilst the Greens rowed in behind the SNP.

The motion was tabled after the Tories accused Swinney of trying to cover up the Scottish Government’s woeful mishandling of Alex Salmond’s legal challenge. The spectre of it finally forced him to start publishing its legal advice, which seems to have given the separatist Greens enough political cover to keep him in post.

Such documents as have been so far released have cast a deeply unfavourable light on the SNP’s approach. At one point, their own legal counsel wrote that they had suffered “extreme professional embarrassment” after making assurances to the court which turned out to be false.

But the Nationalists clearly still have something to hide. Swinney has now said that the Scottish Government didn’t take minutes of meetings between Nicola Sturgeon, the external counsel, and Leslie Evans, Scotland’s most senior civil servant. Even to those sceptical of the more conspiratorial interpretations of what’s unfolding north of the border, this claim beggars belief.

Whilst Salmond has not substantiated his allegations of an overarching plot to see him imprisoned, it does look increasingly plausible that Scottish ministers strung out a no-hope legal defence in the hope that Salmond’s judicial review would be overtaken by criminal proceedings. In the event the charges came too late, and the defeat cost the taxpayer more than half a million pounds.

Meanwhile other bad news stories for the Nationalists continue to mount. Just this week, the Herald reported that ministers “are facing a £5m claim in a dispute over a secret deal that paved the way to the nationalisation of the shipyard at the centre of Scotland’s ferry building fiasco” whilst Patrick Grady, their Chief Whip at Westminster, has stepped aside following sexual harassment allegations. There is also pressure to suspend another MP.

This may yet have implications for their grip on government if the Party becomes too toxic to be able to count on the Greens’ loyal support. But one important thing already seems to have changed: the public are finally noticing.

I have previously compared the Nationalist’s record to the portrait of Dorian Gray. No matter how ugly a prospect the SNP presents, the voters seem unable to see it, allowing the Scottish Government to enjoy undeserved political long life.#

But in recent days there has finally been some shift in the polls. First, a downward tend in support for independence saw ‘No’ overtake ‘Yes’ for the first time in a while. This is no guarantee of the Union’s security, but it undermines the separatists’ efforts to pretend that their project is inevitable and will make it easer for the Government to stand firm in refusing a second referendum.

Now new polling finds that the SNP may not be on track for a second, supposedly-impossible majority in the Scottish Parliament in May. According to the Scotsman:

“Asked who they would vote for in their constituency vote, 48 per cent of Scots said they would vote for the SNP, down 6 per cent from the equivalent poll in February. The SNP’s vote is also down in the regional list, with 40 per cent of Scots saying they would vote for the party, down 3 per cent compared with last month. These numbers are in line with the result from 2016 where the SNP received 46.5 and 41.7 per cent of the vote, leading to the return of 63 seats in Holyrood.”

This might not rule out the Scottish Parliament bidding for another referendum – the Greens support it, after all. But it would again make it easier for London to refuse one. Labour too are toughening up under the leadership of Anas Sarwar, having suspended a candidate who said she would support a second referendum.

And there’s more good news for the Prime Minister in the numbers too: they find “favourability ratings for the First Minister and the Scottish Government continuing to plummet from pre-Christmas highs as Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the UK Government see improvement in their popularity.”

An increase in Boris Johnson’s popularity? That isn’t supposed to happen. But maybe public opinion isn’t set in stone, and the standing of the Prime Minister and Parliament can be improved even in parts of the country disposed to be sceptical of them.

It will certainly be a welcome fillip to him as the Government unveils the new interim report from the Union Connectivity Review, the latest phase in the programme to increase its role in governing the whole nation following the passage of the UK Internal Market Act. The SNP have inevitably deplored the ‘power grab’, but even devophile commentators such as Kenny Farquharson concede that there may be a legitimate role for the British state in handling the transports connexions between the devolved territories. It might at least spare us the absurdity of the Welsh Government nationalising English railway services. Plus the cover is very nice.