A few months after he became Prime Minister, Gordon Brown pondered an early general election. This was briefed about by members of his inner political circle who were keen on the idea, and wanted to create a sense of momentum by getting the idea reported. Their efforts were a triumph in one sense at least. Brown’s musings became public. They weren’t denied, and thus gathered pace. That sense of momentum grew. It began to look unstoppable. And by the time it was stopped, the damage had been done. The man who had been marketed in his first months in office as “not flash, just Gordon” looked more like what his dithering had shown him up as: what Alex Salmond called “the big fearty from Fife”.
This tale from the past takes us to the present – and to Salmond’s successor, Nicola Sturgeon. This is because, in feeding speculation about a second referendum on Scottish independence, she is behaving eerily like Brown himself. The polls are not as benign for her now than they were for the former Prime Minister in the summer of 2007. They show no shift towards support for independence. Perhaps Sturgeon sniffs a change in the wind that others are missing. Maybe she is bowing to internal party pressure. But it looks more as though she cannot help but pursue the cause that has let her prosper – regardless of where public opinion in Scotland may be.
Earlier this week, she took to the Times to claim that she has a “cast-iron mandate” for a second independence referendum and that the prime minister’s “sheer intransigence” will be to blame if she does. In Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Angus Robertson suggested that May opposes letting powers on farming and fisheries go to Holyrood rather than Westminster when they are returned from Brussels. This was clearly intended, like so much that the SNP does, to ramp up a sense of grievance. Perhaps Sturgeon’s calculation is less to hold that referendum than to gain more powers – by using the threat of one to scare the Prime Minister into conceding them.
But either way, she is encouraging speculation about one to grow. May is clearly concerned: the Cabinet held a long discussion about how to deal with Sturgeon’s manoeuverings last week. Ben Gummer, profiled by Andrew Gimson on this site earlier this week, has charge, at the Cabinet Office, of co-ordinating the Government’s response. But, to date, the Prime Minister is not for budging. En route to the Conservative conference in Scotland this weekend, she has accused the SNP of having “tunnel vision” about independence, and lambasted it for its failure to deliver better public services for Scotland’s voters, particularly schools.
It may be said that Sturgeon isn’t like Brown at all – that he backed off, and she will not. Perhaps this is right. Maybe she has already made up her mind. But what is happening looks more consistent with events creating their own momentum. In today’s Daily Telegraph, Ruth Davidson says that if that second independence referendum is held “I would be confident of victory…I think the arguments are weaker and I think the people of Scotland are just as switched on as they were three years ago so I think there’s every chance that we would win by a wider margin.” Most of this site’s readers – though not all, as we have seen – will hope she’s right. Or else hope that a poll won’t take place at all.