Exclusive: Independence case flaws 'mean Nicola Sturgeon unlikely to win outright majority'

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Ms Sturgeon has appeared uncomfortable over recent days as the debate has shifted from the timing of a new referendum to practical issues of independence - Andy Buchanan/Pool/Getty Images
Ms Sturgeon has appeared uncomfortable over recent days as the debate has shifted from the timing of a new referendum to practical issues of independence - Andy Buchanan/Pool/Getty Images

Nicola Sturgeon is now unlikely to win an outright Holyrood majority because flaws in the case for Scottish independence are being exposed, the UK's leading pollster has said.

Sir John Curtice said he now believed there was less than a one in three chance that the SNP would claim a majority in Thursday's election – a result that had been seen as highly likely weeks ago.

If Ms Sturgeon is unable to win most of the seats in the Scottish Parliament, it would weaken her claim of an undisputed mandate to call a new referendum on leaving the UK by 2023.

While she would still try to force a new vote if there is a pro-independence majority once smaller parties are taken into account, this would fall short of the precedent set by Alex Salmond in 2011.

The Telegraph understands that senior SNP strategists are concerned they could lose four vital constituencies to unionist parties and that pollsters are underestimating the ability of Mr Salmond's Alba Party to take second votes away from the SNP.

Ms Sturgeon has appeared uncomfortable over recent days as the debate has shifted from the timing of a new referendum to practical issues such as the currency or the likelihood of a border with England if she delivers her plan for Scotland to leave the UK and join the EU.

She struggled to explain how a fledgling Scottish state could bail its economy out of a major crisis, as the UK had done during the pandemic, without a central bank.

Polls have shown support for the SNP draining over recent days, and a survey last week found backing for independence had dropped to just 42 per cent – the lowest in 18 months.

"Support for independence is now running below 50 per cent, and support for the SNP has eased in line with that," Sir John, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said.

"The interesting thing about the last 72 or 96 hours is that we've actually started to debate the substance of independence. Some of us have been wondering for quite a while why the unionist parties are prattling on about process issues – you've got to win the substantive issue. It's just taken them a long time to get there.

"An SNP majority was on a knife edge at the beginning of the campaign. Looking at the broad picture, the odds on an SNP majority are still greater than zero but they're certainly less than 50 per cent – at the moment I'd say it was around 25 to 30 per cent."

SNP strategists are understood to fear they could lose four constituency seats – Caithness, Sutherland and Ross to the Lib Dems, Perthshire South and Kinross-shire to the Tories, and two in the west of Scotland, Rutherglen, and Coatbridge and Chryston, to Labour.

Nationalists fear they could see a repeat of the 2017 general election, when the party unexpectedly lost a third of its Westminster seats after support for the Tories surged in rural Scotland and Labour made surprise gains in urban areas.

"There's definitely something happening and the ground is changing," an SNP source said. "There has been some significant slippage."

A further concern within the SNP is that a "shy Salmond" factor is underestimating support for the Alba Party in the polls.

The SNP fears the polls could be underestimating support for Alex Salmond's new party - Robert Perry/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
The SNP fears the polls could be underestimating support for Alex Salmond's new party - Robert Perry/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Under a doomsday scenario, strategists believe they could fall to the mid-50s in terms of seats – well below the 65 needed for an overall majority. However, other recent polls have suggested that Ms Sturgeon remains on course to claim an outright majority.

Sir John said that despite the recent fall in the SNP vote, it was almost certain that seats for the SNP and Greens combined would result in another pro-independence majority.

Ed Davey, the Lib Dem UK leader, on Friday insisted his party's 23-year-old candidate, Molly Nolan, was on course to defeat Maree Todd, an SNP minister, in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross.

He said it was apparent Ms Sturgeon was "worried" about the election result and that the "mood had changed" over recent days, with stopping a pro-independence majority at Holyrood – which would effectively take the issue of independence off the table for five years – remains possible.

"We're detecting a mood that is moving away from the SNP – there's a lot of division within the SNP and the nationalist movement more generally," he said. "A pro-independence majority of course can still be prevented, absolutely. I think the mood swing will translate into votes against those [pro-independence] parties."

An SNP spokesman said claims the party could lose seats came from "briefing lines being spread by the Tories".

"Unlike other parties the SNP is fighting for every single vote and is the only party that has put forward a serious case for government," the spokesman said.

"It is only by going to the polls on Thursday and using both the constituency and the regional ballots to vote SNP that people can ensure the experienced leadership of Nicola Sturgeon to guide Scotland through and out of the pandemic, and keep Scotland in safe hands."

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