Ed Miliband 'won't need to woo SNP'
The spectacular surge of the Scottish National Party in the polls has put the spotlight squarely on the question of their potential relationship with Labour in a hung Parliament, in the wake of last night's TV encounter between Nicola Sturgeon and Ed Miliband.
The Labour leader has ruled out a formal coalition with the SNP - an arrangement Ms Sturgeon has also indicated she has no taste for. But Mr Miliband has yet to set his face definitively against a looser co-operation agreement, and Ms Sturgeon repeatedly pressed him last night to join an anti-austerity alliance to "lock out" David Cameron from Downing Street.
The awkward rituals of courtship and rejection being conducted in public by the two leaders have been seized upon by Labour's rivals. Mr Cameron warns voters of a "coalition of chaos" if a Labour/SNP government takes control in Westminster, while Ukip's Nigel Farage worries about "the Scottish tail wagging the English dog".
In pure mathematical terms, the argument for co-operation between the parties looks compelling. If recent polls are right, the SNP could easily hold 40-45 seats in the new Parliament and be the only potential partner able to hand Mr Miliband the keys to Number 10.
Ms Sturgeon has warned Mr Miliband he will never be forgiven by former Labour supporters north of the border if he misses the opportunity to remove Tories from power. But the Labour leader's message to the SNP chief the morning after the debate was: "Thanks, but no thanks."
And Strathclyde University professor of politics John Curtice argued that, by laying her cards so openly on the table, Ms Sturgeon may have robbed her own party of much of the clout it could hope to gain if the outcome of the May 7 poll is inconclusive.
He pointed out that, unlike other small parties vying for a place in the next administration, such as the Liberal Democrats or Democratic Unionists, the SNP has explicitly ruled out any co-operation with Conservatives. Ms Sturgeon was emphatic about it in an interview with Sky News: "N-O spells no, and that's unequivocal."
Instead, she has committed herself to an effort to stop a Labour administration delivering a "Tory-lite" agenda by using the newly-swollen ranks of SNP MPs in the House of Commons to pressurise Mr Miliband into adopting "bolder" policies on issues like austerity and the renewal of the UK's Trident nuclear deterrent.
But Prof Curtice told the Press Association: "The fundamental thing that everybody seems to be missing - apart, probably, from the Labour Party - is that because the SNP have so clearly committed themselves to voting the Tories out and putting Labour in, Labour know that the SNP have nowhere else to go.
"It's not clear to me that very much in the way of negotiations will take place in advance of a Queen's Speech by Miliband, because why does he need to?"
Rather than trying to secure a "confidence and supply" agreement under which the SNP, in return for certain concessions, would undertake not to bring down his administration with a no confidence vote, Mr Miliband was more likely to press ahead with a minority administration either alone or in coalition with Lib Dems, said Prof Curtice.
He would be able to do so in the expectation that on most issues the SNP will not vote with Conservatives, while on the crucial issue of Trident renewal, Alex Salmond is likely to lead his SNP troops through the No lobby accompanied by only a relatively small number of Greens, Welsh nationalists and Labour leftists.
"The irony is that the SNP will only have leverage where they are willing to vote in the same way as the Tories," said Prof Curtice. "There will be occasional issues where they are on the same side, so SNP MPs will potentially be the swing group and we can expect some negotiation."
What becoming the third party at Westminster would do for the SNP would be to deliver them new roles like the chairmanship of select committees and extra speaking time in the chamber and guaranteed questions to the Prime Minister.
"They would go from being peripheral players in the Commons to one of the more permanent players and that gives them an arena to stand up for Scottish interests," said Prof Curtice.
Although she finds herself on the brink of a position of Westminster power never experienced by her predecessors as SNP leader, Ms Sturgeon may find herself caught by the logic of her own argument. If Labour supporters would never forgive Mr Miliband for failing to block a Tory regime, would the new legions of SNP supporters forgive her if she brought down a left-of-centre administration? And if she is not willing to vote with the Conservatives to force a second election, then what need is there for Mr Miliband to offer her concessions?