With the Labour leadership in transition, and a Scottish election due in May, this is a moment of profound uncertainty in British politics. Much may depend on whether the leadership is resolved before or after the election, but it seems to me that there are four major ways in which the situation could work itself out:
1 The Scottish Raj
Gordon Brown is Prime Minister. Jack McConnell is First Minister.
Until recently, this looked like the most likely scenario, and it is still the one that most of the Labour Party will be banking on. A Brown premiership will mean more prominence for the West Lothian Question, especially from David Cameron’s Conservatives. Brown may try to neutralise the issue by altering the Barnett spending formula, but it could still feature at the next Westminster election.
2 Constitutional Crisis
Gordon Brown is Prime Minister. Alex Salmond is First Minister.
This is perhaps most likely if the Labour leadership is resolved before the Holyrood election, but it could still happen afterwards if Labour decides Brown is the man to save the union. Brown’s authority would be undermined from the outset and there would be major clashes between London and Edinburgh, especially over a possible independence referendum.
This scenario could have momentous consequences, but it looks increasingly possible.
3 Parting of the Ways
Alan Johnson is Prime Minister. Alex Salmond is First Minister.
This is possible if the Labour Party becomes more concerned about Brown’s Scottish background, perhaps after a defeat at Holyrood. It would inevitably signal a degree of acceptance that Scotland was going its own way.
4 Scotland Subdued
Alan Johnson is Prime Minister. Jack McConnell is First Minister.
This is the scenario which would raise the fewest immediate constitutional questions. It would be a lost opportunity for Scottish nationalists, but in the long run the diminution of Scottish influence, and the suggestion of a glass ceiling for Scottish MPs, might have consequences for the union.
Other scenarios are possible but most of them are variations of these four. There would be similar implications if Brown were replaced by John Reid, for example, or Alan Johnson by another English MP. Also, a Lib Dem First Minister at Holyrood might raise almost as many implications as an SNP one, given the Lib Dems’ policy on fiscal autonomy.