This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

It was US President Lyndon Johnson who defined the first rule of politics as “learn to count”.

In the end, it all comes down to arithmetic – at the ballot box, parliament or congress. 

If you’ve got the numbers, you get things done. If not, you’re stuffed. 

So it’s surprising that, as calls for the SNP to ditch their joint government deal with the Scottish Greens have grown, not much has been said about the numbers.

It’s especially surprising given some of the apocalyptic nonsense said about ending the Bute House Agreement (BHA) early.

Humza Yousaf, SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn and his predecessor Ian Blackford all sound as if it’s only the BHA keeping the SNP afloat.

Without it, the party would struggle to pass legislation and budgets, they claim.

Meanwhile sceptics such as Fergus Ewing, Kate Forbes and Alba’s Alex Salmond point out the SNP has governed as a minority for most of its 16 years in power.

There would be a risk in axing the BHA, but perhaps not the one you think.

After the 2007 election, the SNP had 47 MSPs to Labour’s 46, yet thrived over four years thanks to some nimble footwork and cosy relations with a pre-Ruth Davidson Tory party.

The Unionist majority forced the Nationalists to shelve plans for an independence vote, yet the SNP impressed the public enough to win 69 MSPs and a majority in 2011.

In 2016 it slipped back into minority territory with 63 MSPs but kept going, and in 2021 it won 64 MSPs, one shy of a majority, and kept going.

When, in August 2021, Ms Sturgeon struck the BHA with the Greens, it added seven MSPs to the Government’s tally, consolidating a pro-independence majority of 71.

It made political sense. In the dying days of the 2016 parliament the minority SNP government was forced to back down over multiple issues as the opposition brought its 65 votes to bear.

With the Greens in the government, the threat of that continuing was lifted.

The idea of a pro-independence majority running Scotland was also useful rhetoric in the PR battle with London over indyref2, although it ultimately proved no match for raw power.

But those advantages look rather distant to many in the SNP who fear ill-fated Green-led policies such as the deposit return scheme and highly protected marine areas are toxic. 

Mr Ewing wants the BHA scrapped, complaining the Green tail is wagging the SNP dog. 

UnspunAnalysis: Blame the Scottish Greens? What a complete cop-out

What if he got his wish? 

The first thing to say is the SNP would go on governing as a minority much as it did before. 

As SNP and Green policy often align, not least on independence, they would almost certainly keep cooperating to pass laws and budgets. The sky would not fall.

Even if the Greens disagreed on some issues and sided with the opposition, the Holyrood chamber would be tied. The SNP would have 64 votes, as would the other parties combined. 

And because the Presiding Officer uses her casting vote for the status quo, she would not back new laws the SNP might hate, or help topple ministers in confidence votes.

So if the Greens aren’t about to turn feral, and the chamber arithmetic seems fairly benign, why is the SNP so keen on the BHA?

One reason is that the main threat to Government stability doesn’t come from the opposition, but from inside the SNP. 

Whatever reasons Ms Sturgeon had for creating the BHA, the big plus for Mr Yousaf today is that it acts as a bulwark against malcontents on his own benches.

The Herald:

If it went, Mr Ewing and his ilk would become extremely powerful.

With the BHA, it would take eight of the SNP’s 64 MSPs to vote with Labour, the Tories and the LibDems to defeat the Government on an issue. That’s not very likely. 

Without it, however, a single SNP MSP abstaining could lead to a 63-64 defeat for the SNP.

Just a handful of rebels could play merry hell with the Government’s agenda, making Mr Yousaf look weak and out of control. It would be electoral poison.

Even if the SNP expelled the rebels, it wouldn’t change the maths, merely create martyrs and add to a sense of chaos. The calculation is therefore a simple one for the FM. 

Better to let the Green tail wag the SNP dog now and again than have a flea circus driving the mutt insane.

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