SNP's woes are multiplying ahead of Scottish Parliament elections – John McLellan

You might have developed the habit of glancing at your phone every hour or so to see if they have learnt how to run an election in Pennsylvania and Arizona and actually produced a result.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, who works as an assistant football referee, has shown he's not afraid to take Boris Johnson to task (Picture: Getty Images)
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, who works as an assistant football referee, has shown he's not afraid to take Boris Johnson to task (Picture: Getty Images)

We’re hoping to avoid similar problems this Thursday night at the Craigentinny and Duddingston council by-election, but with Edinburgh’s reputation for unhurried counting, you never know.

“Democracy is sometimes messy,” said President-nearly-elect Joe Biden on Thursday. “It sometimes requires a little patience as well,” he added, as around the world it was running out.

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Not that we can be too smug after the disaster of 2007 when around 100,000 Scottish Parliament ballots were spoilt because someone had the bright idea of running two elections with three different voting methods and a new counting system on the same day, but at least we learnt.

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Why Covid furlough scheme may play a key role in Scottish independence debate – ...

But we live in a new era of chaos, so perhaps the American election fits in with a world in which 24 hours is a long time in politics never mind a week, as the to-and-fro over the furlough scheme illustrated.

Johnson caught on the hop?

On Sunday morning, Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross was ahead of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon by demanding that the newly extended UK furlough scheme be further lengthened in Scotland if the country went into full lockdown. “How could a Unionist government not restart the scheme if a second lockdown is required in Scotland?” he said in a trail of his speech to the Policy Exchange the following day. “The UK government must treat Scotland the same way as England. That guarantee has to be made immediately.”

In the speech itself, he attacked the UK government’s handling of Brexit and the pandemic as a result of which, he said, Scottish people “no longer see our Union as underpinned by shared values,” and by Monday afternoon he was in the Commons to repeat the message that if there was a second lockdown in Scotland then a furlough extension was “an absolute must”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared to be caught on the hop, but a commitment to ensure lockdowns in the devolved nations were fully covered was given.

Immediate doubts about the clarity of the Prime Minister’s pledge and a lack of confirmation from the Treasury led to a further statement on Tuesday morning from Mr Ross to emphasise there was “no doubt” an extension was guaranteed. But the uncertainty persisted into Tuesday night, even to the extent that there was reluctance to include what looked like a triumph for Mr Ross into Conservative campaign literature.

Sunak goes ‘above and beyond’

As incredulity grew that the UK government was effectively giving the First Minister carte blanche to close down the Scottish economy indefinitely, out came another statement from Mr Ross on Wednesday that “the UK government will support jobs over the next month and the furlough scheme will be available to save Scottish jobs again if we need another lockdown”.

Amidst continued speculation about Treasury resistance, few could have predicted that just 24 hours later Chancellor Rishi Sunak would announce that full support until the end of March, and with it £1bn to preserve Scottish jobs.

Given the suspicion earlier in the week that the Prime Minister’s promise was just bluster, no wonder Mr Ross was quick to praise Mr Sunak for going “above and beyond". But with predictable complaints from the SNP that the announcement was overdue and gripes about the support for the self-employed, it was wishful thinking to say it had “blown the SNP’s grievances out of the water”.

What ordinary voters make of finding fault with a £1bn package that gets Scottish families through Christmas and well into spring is another thing, but it smacked of desperation in what has been another difficult week for Ms Sturgeon and the SNP must now realise Mr Ross is not shy of going toe-to-toe with Downing Street when necessary.

SNP defeated twice at Holyrood

As the economic lifeline was being finalised, the SNP lost two votes on Wednesday, with cross-party support for a Conservative motion calling for the immediate launch of a judge-led inquiry into the Covid-19 deaths in Scottish care homes and the other a motion from Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser, calling on the government to release all legal advice for the Alex Salmond judicial review.

The First Minister refused, saying it would breach the ministerial code, but Mr Fraser quickly pointed out the code allowed publication in the public interest and now veteran SNP MSP Alex Neil is calling for a judicial inquiry into the whole affair.

Problems are not going away and, this Tuesday, the Justice Committee will start taking evidence on the Hate Crime Bill which is becoming one public relations disaster after another. With a truly staggering loss of any sense of pragmatism or political nous, Justice Minister Humza Yousaf defended the principle of criminalising words spoken in the privacy of the family home, despite all the comparisons with the worst totalitarian regimes that involves.

The legislation was bad enough before, but Mr Yousaf seems determined to dig a deeper hole for himself, but an even bigger one for his party and no-one seems to have the gumption to call a halt.

The threat to the SNP was best put by prominent pro-independence commentator Kevin McKenna, who wrote in The Herald that, “If the price of ridding Scotland of the people responsible for this cultural abduction is another decade of the Union then so be it. Independence when it comes will be for keeps. It’s too precious to be administered by these duplicitous careerists and political chancers.”

Mr Yousaf keeps digging over hate crime, Ms Sturgeon keeps digging over the Salmond affair while Mr Sunak has just dug out £1bn for Scottish workers. Those expecting an SNP canter come May should remember Joe Biden was supposed to smash it too.

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