New Nicola Sturgeon setback as ally dismisses ‘de facto’ referendum plan


Nicola Sturgeon’s authority as First Minister suffered another setback after a previously staunch ally dismissed her plan to use a national election as a “de facto” independence referendum.

Stewart McDonald, the Glasgow South MP, warned that the plan was “deficient” because it would not deliver independence and would instead “set back significantly” the campaign to leave the UK.

The SNP is to hold a “special democracy conference” next month to decide whether to use the next Westminster or Holyrood election as a referendum.

Ms Sturgeon has argued that she would have a mandate to open divorce negotiations with the UK Government if separatist parties won more than half the popular vote.

But with both Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, and Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, making it clear they would not regard a general election as a referendum, Mr McDonald warned that the next UK Government would refuse to open talks.

He said the SNP would be better served trying to drive up support for independence to a point where the Government could no longer deny allowing a rerun of the 2014 vote.

Mr McDonald’s analysis, in a paper he published, was echoed by Alex Neil, a former Scottish Cabinet minister in Ms Sturgeon’s government, who argued that the “de facto” referendum was “likely to be an own goal” and a “noose” for the independence movement.

It comes with the First Minister’s authority already damaged by the trans rapist scandal. Polls have shown that public support for Ms Sturgeon, the SNP and independence has fallen sharply over her handling of Isla Bryson being sent to a women’s prison and her plan to allow people to self-identify their legal gender.

The Telegraph disclosed this week that Alex Salmond had accused Ms Sturgeon of having “thrown away” years of work building public support for independence with "self-indulgent nonsense" on reforming gender laws.

Mr McDonald warned that the public did not support her “de facto” referendum plan and his paper said it had “the potential for all sorts of problems for the cause”.

He told BBC Radio Scotland the SNP should “stick to calls for a legitimate referendum”, saying that this was what the public and the international community would expect.

“I think part of the reason why we are stuck at the moment and that there is this miasma of impatience – impatience that I share entirely – is because support for independence isn’t yet clearly the sustained majority opinion in Scotland,” he said. “I think that is the problem that we need to fix with some urgency before we go into the next election.”

He denied that forcing Ms Sturgeon into a U-turn on the strategy would further undermine her leadership, but in a foreword to the paper wrote: “The chances of obtaining 50 per cent of the vote in a UK general election are slim indeed.

“Even if we were to repeat the 2015 result, when we won 56 of the 59 Scottish seats at Westminster, we would still only get 49.7 per cent of the vote. The ‘de facto’ referendum will have been lost. Why hang that noose round our independence necks?”

But Pete Wishart, the SNP’s longest-serving MP, backed the “de facto” plan and insisted Mr McDonald was wrong, saying: “We either do this or we do nothing.”

Donald Cameron, the Scottish Tories’ shadow constitution secretary, said: “Even one of Nicola Sturgeon’s own MPs recognises that her push to turn the next general election into a de facto referendum on independence is completely unworkable in reality.”