Today the cohort of SNP MPs in Westminster will vote against Boris Johnson’s terrible, hard Brexit and so they should. However, the last few days have seen social media awash with calls for the SNP to vote for it, abstain, walk out and even join a big Zoom call with Scottish voters.
All good fun ideas but lacking in tactical wisdom.
The SNP has 47 MPs in Westminster out of 650, the Conservatives have 364 and the Labour party 200, both groups of those MPs will be whipped to vote for the deal. Labour will do some grandstanding, looking to add worker protections etc., but they know there is almost zero chance of those being accepted.
Voting against will be SNP (47) Plaid Cymru (3) The LibDems (11) Greens (1) DUP (8), note that the DUP will vote against it as they want a harder Brexit (yes they are a bit daft). There are some independents and MPs who’ve lost their party whip but the maths is clear; the bill will pass, no matter what the SNP does, so what are their tactical options.
The SNP can vote to ratify the agreement, they can abstain, or they can vote against it.
Option 1 – vote for the agreement and say a hard Brexit is still better than a No Deal Brexit and a no-deal Brexit would be disastrous for Scotland, so we had no choice. Then in every debate on how damaging Brexit has been for Scotland the Unionists will be able to say the SNP voted for it, so they have no right to criticise the after-effects of Brexit, they had the option to vote against but they decided to back it. Plaid Cymru will use Welsh Labor MPs backing the deal as a stick to beat them with for the next couple of years, so expect a handful of Welsh Labour MPs to ignore Kier Starmer’s instructions to be good Brexiteers.
The Scottish Parliament will debate the issue today and will, with the exception of the Conservatives, unanimously reject the agreement. Labour MSPs in Holyrood will vote against the ratifying the agreement and so they would have a field day asking why SNP MPs voted to approve the Brexit deal when the SNP MSPs and the Scottish Parliament as a whole voted to reject it.
Or perhaps people think that Holyrood should back the deal and vote for a hard Brexit that will inevitably lead to many key powers being stripped from the Scottish Parliament?
Option 2 – abstain. In other words, on one of the most important votes those MPs will ever be asked to vote on, they should sit on their hands and allow a hard Brexit to be forced upon Scotland without voting against it. Abstaining under these circumstances is exactly what has undermined the Labour party’s credibility time and time again on Brexit.
I know they could walk out of the chamber and that’s appealing to some independence supporters but that’s just abstaining with panache. However, the press would call it stomping out in a huff and that would stick with undecided and soft No voters who voted remain and want the SNP to continue to reject Brexit.
Option 3 – vote against ratifying the deal. Clearly the problem here is that if you vote against the hard Brexit deal and it falls, then the Conservatives will say the SNP forced a hard Brexit on the UK. That would indeed be disastrous but the numbers indicate the bill will pass by many hundreds of votes so there is no danger of that. That means the SNP has the flexibility to vote against a bad deal, to vote against a hard Brexit that will cost Scottish jobs, slow our economy, make exporting more difficult and importing more expensive – so why wouldn’t they?
Scottish Government analysis estimates Scotland’s GDP could be cut by around 6.1% – costing Scotland more than £9billion, or the equivalent of £1600 for every person by 2030 when you compare this Hard Brexit to EU membership – to miss the chance to vote against that is to have it be your problem. The SNP couldn’t claim they abstained in case there was a hard brexit as the opposition would just say “It passed by 400 votes are you mad”?
Options 1 and 2 do nothing for the SNP and, in fact, undermine their future case against Brexit and the use of Brexit as the material change that justifies a second referendum. How can the SNP use the 2021 Holyrood manifesto say Brexit is against Scotland’s democratically expressed wishes (62% Remain) and that it justifies Indyref2 when they voted for it?
There is no easy option; the phrase Hobson’s Choice comes to mind, but voting for a hard Brexit or abstaining (with panache or not) are suicidal options for the SNP. Voting against is the moral position and puts them on the right side of the argument. The target audience for the SNP is without doubt former No voters who voted Remain and they will see that the SNP was true to its word and fought Brexit till the end. This will trump any claims by Brexiteers that they were risking a No Deal Brexit, which will be seen as obviously and demonstrably false, just as soon as the votes at Westminster are counted.