Sturgeon under pressure: Polling guru explains Boris has upper hand in independence row

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However, the Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde also said Mr Johnson himself needed to tread carefully when questioning First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s referendum mandate – pointing out similar questions could be asked of him in relation to Brexit.

She’s right that she has got a pro-independence majority in Parliament but it is less clear as to whether or not there is a majority for independence

Sir John Curtice

Sir John was speaking after Ms Sturgeon claimed the case for a referendum was now “undeniable” after the confirmation of a historic landmark agreement between the SNP and the Greens, which are also pro-independence.

He told “She’s right that she has got a pro-independence majority in Parliament but it is less clear as to whether or not there is a majority for independence at the moment.”

Most recent polls suggest Scotland is split 52/48 in favour of staying in the United Kingdom – the mirror image of the position a few months ago.

Sir John added: “In the election itself, the unionist parties got just over 50 percent of the constituency vote but the nationalist parties got just over 50 percent of the list vote.

“So the electoral system translated that outcome into a majority for pro-independence because the nationalist vote is more united than the unionist vote and therefore the SNP does well out of the constituency section of the system.”

However, Mr Johnson would be well advised to resist the temptation to question the legitimacy of the SNP’s mandate, Sir John pointed out.

He explained: “The truth is the only reason why Boris Johnson’s got a majority is not that the majority of people voted in 2019 for parties in favour of implementing Brexit.

“There wasn’t – only 47 percent voted that way.

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“It was because the Leave vote was more united than the Remain vote therefore the Conservatives get an overall majority.

“So it is difficult for the Conservatives to question the basis of the mandate that the SNP claim without people then being able to say ‘Well if that’s what you claim that actually we can question the mandate that Boris Johnson got in the 2019 general election’.

“Because once you start looking at opinion polls, then the very arguments of the Government using the mandate to question the SNP’s mandate can then be used to question the UK Government’s mandate to deliver Brexit.”

So much was at stake that neither side could afford to force the issue, Sir John stressed.

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He said: “It is not in the interest of either side for there to be a referendum at any point in the near future, because it’s a gamble for Sturgeon and it is a gamble for Johnson.

“What both sides need to be able to do is move the dial in terms of the redistribution of attitudes.”

However, Sir John suggested Boris Johnson had the upper hand, because the ball was in Ms Sturgeon’s court.

He said: “If Boris Johnson can increase the level of support for staying in the UK, then it is likely that if at some point in the next four and a half years, when Nicola Sturgeon says she wants a referendum, then it might be possible for Boris to say ‘be my guest’.

“Equally Nicola Sturgeon does not want to start pushing for a referendum until she has moved the dial to the point so that holding a referendum might actually yield a majority.

“That said the one thing Nicola Sturgeon cannot avoid is asking for a referendum, and pushing for a referendum, and doing everything she can to try and get a referendum at some point in five years.

“Because in exactly the same way as Boris Johnson’s majority in 2019 rested very heavily on the support of Leave voters who wanted Brexit implemented, and therefore had to Boris had to implement Brexit in order to satisfy his electorate, the proportion of SNP’s supporters who are in favour of independence is even greater than the proportion of Leave voters who are voting Conservative.

“It was around 53-54 percent in the second half of 2020 – she would like at the minimum like to get it back to that but it isn’t going to be easy.”

Speaking in Holyrood after the agreement with the Greens was finalised, Ms Sturgeon said: “We must also defend our Parliament against UK government power grabs that are undermining the very principles on which it is founded.

“And as we do so, recognise that the best way, not just of protecting this Parliament from Westminster, but also equipping it with the full powers it needs to build a fairer, more prosperous country, is to make it independent of Westminster.

“That is why fulfilling our democratic mandate to let the Scottish people choose our own future in a referendum is a key strand of this agreement.

“These are the inescapable challenges that confront us – how we respond to them will shape Scotland now and for the decades ahead.”

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