7 Feb 2014

Cameron to Tories: We’re meant to be unionists!

Newspapers have focused on how David Cameron’s speech is a plea to Scots voters to stick with the union, not unlike the Canadian demonstrations that pleaded with Quebec to stay inside the national family. It’s worth mentioning in one rally just before the 1995 referendum, 100,000 came out to wave the flag and beg Quebec to stay. Not sure David Cameron would get that many in Portsmouth, to pluck an example from the air.

But the speech had another purpose: telling a party that until not so long ago used to be called the Conservative and Unionist party that the union actually matters.

There are extraordinary numbers of Tory MPs, not least in the 2010 intake, who tell you they couldn’t care less if Scotland wandered off and it might be for the better. Their predecessors would choke on their porridge to hear them (actually they’d be choking badly to hear the PM talk about the UK being a “brand” but that’s another matter).

I’ve even found people who work for the prime minister in No 10 and senior ministers who roll their eyes in boredom at the idea of Scotland going it alone and shrug it off as at worst a  non-event and at best a way of keeping the Tories in power forever in “rUK” as it is tagged by the academics.


One of the underlying trends being picked up by Better Together’s polling is a declining sense of “Britishness” even amongst “no” voters. It leads some to believe that even if they pull off a victory for the union this time round, they could struggle to repeat it in a future referendum on current trends.

One big figure in the Better Together campaign says this speech, though it has a message for Scots voters, is as much as anything aimed at Mr Cameron’s backyard.

The pro-union campaign is funded largely by Tories and it could do with a fresh injection of cash. They are not banking on United Canada-style rallies but have been focus-grouping which non-political figures from the worlds of entertainment, sports and business might have an impact on Scots voters.

Some Tory MPs have started to realise there would be a bigger immediate potential crisis from a “yes” victory. There’s a decent chance David Cameron’s premiership would come to an end.

If he had presided over the loss of a substantial part of the country, something he had led the charge against, his position would be challenged by unionists within his own party and by those simply seizing the opportunity to get rid of him on any excuse.

A couple of Tory MPs brought this up with me spontaneously this week, suggesting it is beginning to become part of the conversation on the backbenches.

Prof Jim Gallagher, for years Whitehall’s resident devolution expert, said David Cameron wouldn’t last very long at all after a “yes” victory in our piece on “Rump UK” in January.

David Cameron’s message isn’t just, “We love you, Scotland”, it’s “We need you … I need you” and “Wake up Tory England, this is serious”.

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