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It’s Miliband, not Salmond or Osborne, who holds the Union’s future in his hands

Last Updated: Friday, January 13th, 2012

“Who’s winning the battle for Scotland?” 

There are two starkly different answers to the question after last weekend’s move by George Osborne and Danny Alexander to carry the fight over Scotland’s future to Alex Salmond.

The first is that to date the UK Government is the winner: that the ambush mounted last weekend over the timing and content of a referendum has smoked out Salmond, and forced him to concede that a poll will take place.

The second is that to date the winner is Scotland’s First Minister: that the gambit was poorly conceived, and that it is the UK Government that has been compelled to back down, effectively conceding that timing will remain in Salmond’s hands.

Whatever one’s view, the clash has thrown a spotlight on the strategy and tactics of the two camps – and that of the Labour Party, the only combatant with a big presence in both countries.  But why is the issue now at the forefront of debate?

David Cameron doesn’t want to be remembered as the Prime Minister on whose watch Scotland was lost.  He is also mindful of the paltry presence of the Conservative Party north of the border, with its single Commons seat.

So he has therefore been reluctant to date to try and force the pace over a referendum – rejecting the advice of Lord Forsyth, the former Tory Scottish Secretary, to take the fight to Salmond and call a referendum himself.

Towards the end of last year, he realised that this plan was leaving the Union vulnerable to Salmond including a third option in a referendum – more devolution (devo plus).  Were it enacted, the UK’s constitutional settlement could come under further strain.

George Osborne, the Chancellor, said before Christmas what he said in a TV interview yesterday – that an independent Scotland wouldn’t automatically be able to keep the pound.  The eyes of the media weren’t on the issue and the warning went unnoticed.

Osborne is the Conservatives’ most able electoral strategist and has good working relations with Danny Alexander, his Liberal Democrat deputy at the Treasury as Chief Secretary.  They were responsible for last weekend’s briefings.

The Chancellor clearly believes that taking on the immensely capable Salmond, the biggest beast in Scotland’s political jungle by far, is a natural extension of that role.  Others are not so sure.

They point out that Salmond likes nothing better than to portray himself as the symbol of an underdog nation being exploited by ruthless English overlords – and that Osborne neatly fits that stereotype, especially since he’s a Tory.

The Chancellor can’t fairly be blamed for upping the ante during yesterday evening’s ITV interview – because he would have done the event anyway, whether the question of Scotland’s future currency would have come up or not.

But Labour is suspicious of his motives – believing that Osborne stands to gain both if the SNP’s independence bid is defeated and if it isn’t.  If Salmond loses, the Chancellor would be able to present himself as the man who saved the union.

If Salmond wins, however, Labour would be stripped at a stroke of its Scottish Westminster seats – institutionalising a natural Tory majority in England.  Osborne is therefore arguably placed in a win-win position.

This view is misleading.  The Chancellor is unlikely to lead the anti-independence campaign.  He recognises that to succeed it must be led and run from Scotland, not from the Treasury.  Nor would he want to be blamed for any failure.

In any event, he doesn’t want to be chronicled in history as one of the men who lost Scotland any more than the Prime Minister does.  But it will be impossible for either of them to avoid questions during this long campaign.

These include ones not only about Scotland’s future currency but about the future of the armed forces, the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent, border control, the ownership of oil and assets, and any financial settlement.

The key question is the content of any referendum – not the timing, which Michael Moore, the Scottish Secretary, more or less conceded was the business of the Scottish Government during a Parliamentary statement mid-week.

The legal consensus is that the UK Government is entitled to rule a devo-max option out of order.  Cameron’s aim will be to try to ensure that Salmond accepts this is the case without the Coalition taking the blame.

Salmond’s will be to use the unpopularity of the Coalition to wring concessions out of London.  What would Cameron do, for example, were the Salmond to insist that devo-max should be on the ballot paper as a “consultative option”?

He will also try to portray Labour as the tool of the wicked Tories.  Will Ed Miliband and Johann Lamont, the party’s leader in Scotland, be able to hold the line in opposing devo-max – a popular option which Salmond is building up support for?

Will Labour MSPs be as opposed to devo-max, and as sensitive to the party’s vulnerability at Westminster, as its national leadership?  After all, devo-plus would call into question Labour’s present representation at Westminster.

Osborne and Salmond were the main actors while this week’s events were staged.  Labour weren’t even tipped off by their fellow Unionist parties about the Government’s briefings last weekend.  But the party is set to play a crucial role.

For since it is the one whose representation in England and Scotland is best balanced, it can be argued that of all the party leaders Miliband is the one who really holds the future of the Union in his hands.

By Paul Goodman

  

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK FROM CONSERVATIVEHOME

Bruce Anderson: Miliband is mere comic relief.  Labour should promote Dan Jarvis:  “There is a young Labour MP called Dan Jarvis. Although he has only just arrived in Parliament, he exudes class. This might be a Tony Blair with moral depth: a good enough politician to lead his party without solving its basic intellectual difficulties. That said, not yet; give the boy a bit of time. In the interim, the Labour party ought to stop bitching about its Leader and start helping him to work out what he should believe. This may not work. It could be that there is no electorally acceptable answer. Even so, it must be better than relaunches and opportunism.” Read more: http://is.gd/6mcaZo

Conservative Intelligence: Our private showing of “The Iron Lady”:  “For Moore, Lady Thatcher’s official biographer, the film shouldn’t be seen as a detailed historical record of this period in British politics. It had, for him, an operatic quality and it captured that most important of Lady Thatcher’s qualities – strength. Tax drivers on every continent, Charles Moore noted, talk to him about her resolution in the face of great odds. No one who watches this film will leave without the strongest sense that this old woman, now suffering horribly from dementia, really once was Britain’s Iron Lady; stronger and more determined than any man of her day.” Read more: http://is.gd/BhvLSN\

Paul Goodman: Britain needs an all-party campaign for the Union. The battle against Salmond can’t be led from 11 Downing Street:  “The Chancellor is the best strategist that the Conservative Party has – and an infinitely classier one than his critics claim.  He won’t have moved last weekend without working closely with Danny Alexander, his Deputy, a Scottish MP who sits for a Scottish seat and knows the Scottish score.  But the campaign to out-fox Salmond cannot be led from 11 Downing Street.  And it won’t be successful without the enthusiastic participation of Scotland’s second party, Labour.Read more: http://is.gd/PKiqpJ

Lord Forsyth: David Cameron is ending the uncertainty by enabling Alex Salmond to deliver the referendum the SNP promised: “Constitutional matters are reserved to Westminster under the Scotland Act which set up the Scottish Parliament. Holyrood cannot conduct a legally binding and therefore decisive referendum without being given the power to do so by Westminster. It really is extraordinary to see the Nationalists squirming and crying foul because David Cameron has had the courage to end the uncertainty and enable Alex Salmond to deliver what he promised.” Read more: http://is.gd/Cjzyf0

Dr Madsen Pirie: Employees of small and medium businesses should be given the status of self-employed people under contract:  “Today the Adam Smith Institute publishes the first salvo in its “Growth Agenda” series. This one covers the self-employment option, and its proposal calls for a complete change in the Treasury mindset. Instead of trying to sweep everyone out of self-employment and into employed status, they should allow and encourage all small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to give their employees the status of self-employed people under contract.” Read more: http://is.gd/2ETsav

Tim Montgomerie: David Cameron begins fight for fairness agenda: “The Sunday Telegraph has an interview with the Prime Minister this morning in which David Cameron promises to fight for a fairer Britain…This is all music to my ears. When I worked for Iain Duncan Smith in 2003 we found “fairness” was one of the most potent words for voters. It’s why he launched his “fair deal for everyone”. And what do voters mean by fairness? The best definition of fairness was double-sided. Fairness to those who provided help to the least fortunate as well as help for the least fortunate.” Read more: http://is.gd/EBPVSj

Michael Nazir-Ali: Let us care for the ill and vulnerable – not help them to die:  “I am so glad that David Cameron has made it clear that he will oppose any moves to change the law. The Care Not Killing coalition tells us that the commission’s report has not added a single new argument or fact to the debate. I hope the government and the public will not be swayed by what Care Not Killing has called “a deeply worrying and flawed” report.” Read More: http://is.gd/lCNmMF

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