Vaccine Promise Raises Election Stakes for Scottish Leader

The success of Britain’s vaccine program may carry huge political weight for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but it could also turn into a pivotal moment for one of his toughest adversaries.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon promised this week to get a first dose into the majority of the nation’s adult population by mid-April, less than a month before Scotland votes in a local parliamentary election that she’s counting on to reinforce her drive for another independence referendum.

The head of Scotland’s government since 2014, Sturgeon is perceived by the public to have handled the pandemic more competently than Johnson. Polls show her Scottish National Party on course for a majority while support for independence is comfortably above 50%. Meanwhile, Scotland’s opposition to Brexit was underscored by protests from the fishing industry.

Vaccine Promise Raises Election Stakes for Scottish Leader

But opponents in Edinburgh are clawing at any signs of weakness over Scotland’s vaccine program, with schools now shut until at least the middle of next month. It means the race to get people out of lockdown could also turn into a race to maximize her political capital.

“Clearly the SNP will be keen to use the election result to claim a mandate for a second independence referendum, so they absolutely need to get a majority and certainly on recent polling that looks likely,” said Emily Gray, the managing director of pollster Ipsos MORI Scotland. “But obviously in politics you can’t be complacent or take anything for granted.”

The future of Scotland is a dominant issue in British politics as Johnson tries to arrest the pro-independence forces that have gained succor as the U.K. withdrew from the European Union and the coronavirus left the country with the continent’s highest death toll.

There are no current plans to reschedule the May vote, though the Scottish parliament has passed legislation that would allow a delay, extended ballot period or with increased postal voting. The Electoral Commission is operating on the basis the election is going ahead as planned. It’s estimated that a shift to all postal voting could take at least six months to organize.

Making a dent in the popularity of the SNP is vital for Johnson as he rebuffs Sturgeon’s calls for another independence vote. A Savanta ComRes opinion poll published last week predicted the SNP could win as many as 71 of 129 seats in May. That would be the party’s biggest-ever majority.  

Vaccine Promise Raises Election Stakes for Scottish Leader

“When everyone’s faced with an SNP that’s heading for a majority, any delay, where something might happen, could potentially be an advantage,” said Alan Convery, senior lecturer in Politics at the University of Edinburgh. “But then maybe there’s a delay and Sturgeon triumphantly announces the end of social distancing and there’s a feeling she’s handled it well and we’ve got through to the other side.”

Sturgeon, who has control of Scotland’s heath policy, has appeared more cautious with her messaging than Johnson during the pandemic and has also sought to differentiate her approach with the public.

Last week, the Scottish government published details about vaccine supply on its website amid criticism about the effectiveness of its rollout. Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday the U.K. government had a “hissy fit” and ordered her to remove it because of confidentiality.

Scotland had vaccinated just shy of 290,000 people as of Jan. 19, or 5.3% of the population compared with 7.3% in England, according to Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker. Scotland started with all care homes, which Sturgeon said was more time consuming than community inoculation.

“The vaccination program in Scotland is not lagging behind,” Sturgeon told lawmakers in Edinburgh on Wednesday. “The vaccination program overall is ramping up and we are on an increasing trajectory.”

Vaccine Promise Raises Election Stakes for Scottish Leader

The Scottish wing of Johnson’s Conservatives has criticized Sturgeon for failing to distribute shots quickly enough and accused her government of already missing its own roll-out targets.

They also have other weapons to attack her with. An ongoing investigation into her government’s handling of a harassment case against predecessor Alex Salmond is getting increasingly acrimonious. He was cleared by a court in March of sexually assaulting women during his time in office after a two-week trial.

There’s also the prospect of an inquiry into care homes, which were badly hit at the start of the pandemic. Sturgeon this week also announced 250 million pounds ($341 million) of extra funding to tackle a drug abuse crisis she described as a “national disgrace.”

The overarching criticism, though, is that they say she’s  focusing on independence rather than pulling together as a United Kingdom at a time of national crisis. Indeed, May’s election is now framed as a plebiscite on the right for Scotland to chart its own course as a sovereign state.

Sturgeon has pledged to hold a referendum in the “early part” of the next parliamentary session. Johnson says a vote in 2014 that saw Scots decide by 55% to 45% to remain in the U.K. settled the issue for the foreseeable future.

A court in Edinburgh will on Thursday begin a two-day hearing into a crowdfunded case by independence activists, who are seeking a ruling that Scotland already has the power to hold a new referendum without London’s consent.

Sturgeon, though, is reticent to move ahead with any vote that wouldn’t hold up to international law. The first step will be to ensure the vaccine rollout isn’t derailed and her party remains on track to win big.

“The latest picture we have of public opinion is one of clear SNP command,” said Gray, the pollster. “Leadership is important, and so is the handling of the pandemic—so if public perceptions about how the first minister is handling the pandemic worsen, than that could certainly have an impact. But we haven’t seen that happen to date.”

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