This weekend, Nicola Sturgeon declared “I detest the Tories”. This wasn’t a slip up. It was deliberate. It was tactical. And it worked. Here’s how…
Disastrous polls for the Tories = bad for the SNP
A recent poll of Scottish voters, like polls across the UK, shows the Tories in freefall. The SNP won’t say this openly but that is potential bad news for them because it puts two valuable types of SNP voters at risk of wandering off.
One of those two voter types is the ‘anti-tory independence supporter’. These voters aren’t motivated by high-minded theoretical stuff about sovereignty. They are motivated by practicality and see independence as an available tool for ending Tory rule.
The second voter type is simply the anti-tory voter. These voters aren’t motivated by independence (poll after poll shows many SNP voters don’t particularly care about it, in case you were wondering). These voters vote SNP just to beat Tories because the SNP have been better able to do that in Scotland since at least 2014 (when Labour collapsed after sharing a referendum platform with the Tories).
Both of these voter types are likely to be less motivated to vote SNP now that Tory rule looks like it will end soon.
Improving polls for Labour = bad for the SNP too
The disastrous polls for the Tories have also been good for Labour, who have shot up in popularity in both Scotland and the wider UK.
If Labour look set to be the next UK government (and they do), the anti-Tory independence voters have less motivation to support independence or vote SNP, since Tory rule is on the way out anyway. At the same time, the general anti-Tory voters may feel they can risk voting for other parties they prefer to the SNP – not least Labour itself – now that the risk of Tories winning is reduced to almost nothing.
This a particular concern to the SNP after fifteen years in office building up baggage that has often been overlooked by voters only because most Scots feel the Tories in Westminster are worse.
This was the context in which Nicola Sturgeon, by far the cleverest senior politician of any party in the UK over the last decade, played her winning hand.
“I detest the Tories”
It is fair to say the Tories right now are not politically very canny. We could be generous and suggest this is because a new Tory team just hasn’t got into gear. Or we could be less generous and say even a new team shouldn’t have screwed up basic stuff like failing to check the prudence box ahead of a budget event, or inadequately briefing the PM on her own policies ahead of a local radio round.
Either way, the Tories being poor at politics right now is the most crucial context in which Sturgeon said four magic words to get the Tories to do her campaigning for her.
From newspaper headlines to radio and TV chat shows, Tories exclaimed their horror at her using divisive language about them. The Scottish Tories even created and promoted a social media advert with a picture of Sturgeon and her infamous line. So Sturgeon literally had Tories spending Tory budgets to promote the SNP’s credentials to anti-Tory Scots.
Zero downside for Sturgeon
Attacking Labour this way might have harmed Sturgeon and the SNP. After all, it might have alienated Labourish voters who tactically vote SNP to beat local Tories. It would also have given Labour a powerful moral decency angle that plays well with some voters who dislike such awful divisive language.
But against the Tories, no such risks exist. The SNP attracts very few Toryish voters anywhere in Scotland these days – having become the main anti-tory party and still being very much the most significant pro-remain option in Scotland.
Similarly, Tory attempts to play a moral decency card over divisive language is an obvious busted flush with voters who have been called “traitors”, “citizens of nowhere”, “tank-topped bumboys” and so on by Tory leaders for years. Indeed, a bit of “payback” to the Tories probably feels quite good for those millions of voters, which might give Sturgeon another boost.