15 Sep 2014

Tories ponder what next if it’s a ‘no’

David Cameron and Alex Salmond have the same message today: this week is momentous. After that, the agreements disappear.

David Cameron wants voters to realise Thursday has no Marks & Spencer “return” get-out. It is irreversible constitutional change, not an election.

Alex Salmond wants voters to sense something massive is on offer and they won’t necessarily get the chance to grab it again. He wants voters to see it as a Brief Encounter moment they’ll forever regret passing up.

David Cameron wants them to see it as an alluring siren they shouldn’t quit the family for.

I caught up with Alex Salmond in the now traditional media scrums he seems to rather like. The buzz conveys a sense of excitement, even if the camera shots can be unsteady and the heaving media pack a threat to public safety.

This time the location was international arrivals at Edinburgh airport. He denied his supporters were trying to intimidate the BBC at yesterday’s flashmob in Glasgow. He insisted the Queen wasn’t showing her (union jack) colours in her remarks to a member of the public near Balmoral yesterday.

And he accused pro-union business people of being gulled by No. 10 into making confected threats to scare voters off independence.

There is word that Gordon Brown will make a significant announcement later today on devolution. A good way of deflecting attention perhaps from David Cameron‘s visit. It’s his tenth and last of the campaign, and he knows from his own advisers that he’s thought to be a repelling magnet for many Scots voters.

He feels he must come to show he cares but he’s wary of stealing the limelight when so many Scots are choosing independence in order never to have to be governed by a Tory again.

David Cameron’s future is very shaky indeed if there’s a yes vote. It’s hard to see how he could lead his party into the next general election. But a source close to the PM thinks he could survive a very tight no vote and might even enhance his position.

The logic runs that much as Mr Cameron’s failure to win the 2010 general election outright quickly got lost in the media focus on the coalition talks, so a tight victory would not lead to recriminations but see the focus shift to what powers are devolved to Scotland.

The source, a senior Tory, is convinced that despite some resistance from Ed Balls in particular, the process announced last week by Gordon Brown to fast-track new tax and spending powers for Holyrood will inevitably end up with the pro-union parties coalescing around one offer on devolution.

That could mean the Tory/Lib Dem policies, giving more powers than Labour were inclined to give, could end up as the compromise deal. That is already being seen as opening up potential for the Tories to restrict Scottish MPs’ voting rights on English matters.

That in turn could open up an opportunity to challenge the legitimacy of a Labour majority that is dependent on Scottish MPs.

Number 10 relentlessly insisted it had no contingencies for a yes vote. It is working very hard behind the scenes on contingencies for a no vote.

Did it have to be like this? Should David Cameron have allowed a two-option vote to avoid forcing a lot of independence-switherers converting over time into devout supporters?

Alex Bell, until 2012 policy chief to Alex Salmond, believes there was another (perhaps bigger) missed moment back in 2010. Soon after forming the coalition, Mr Bell says that senior Lib Dem and Tory figures sounded out the then SNP minority administration about an offer of what he says was termed “devo max”. At that point, the SNP was never expected to get the majority it won in 2011 and which compelled it to put a referendum on the table.

The hope among some senior coalition figures, Mr Bell says, was that devo max/home rule would put the constitutional argument to bed and frustrate Labour’s chances of having a majority in Westminster.

Five years later, a convulsive referendum campaign later, a political heart attack for pro-unionists later… you could argue the pro-union parties find themselves at the original floated destination but with momentum firmly on their opponents’ side.

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