Evil twin?

Poor Gordon - perhaps soon to be replaced by one or another Miliband. They’re twins. What happens if

Something of an eventful fortnight behind me. The weekend before last I had to pick up the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. This involved flying to Salzburg – cue much head twitching and feeble attempts at self-hypnosis in various bits of Gatwick. Eventually my imagination simply became so exhausted by picturing smiley things and projection screens and giving air gunners encouraging hugs that it could no longer picture my mangled remains dangling from a tree, ready to traumatise a passing rescue worker. At least not clearly enough to prevent me from boarding the plane and then carrying out every single obsessive-compulsive safety ritual I have – along with a few I invented as we bounced along. I’m sure I was a joy to all observers – tapping, nodding, shuddering and humming away like a shouldn’t-ever-be-out-patient.

Salzburg itself is lovely – delightful graveyard. The prize business involved wearing evening dress at most times of day, staring at canapés and being regularly assailed by classical music. All of which was so cultured, civilised and frankly unbelievable that it became pleasant, rather than nerve-wracking. The Austrian Minister for Culture is charming and actually cares about culture and the Austrian Prime Minister gave me cake – while I tried to assure him my own Prime Minister would have taken my cake and told me it would be given to the destitute and cake-needy before sneaking it into the cake trough of a cake-spattered man in a mink cake-eating suit. Poor Gordon, though - perhaps soon to be replaced by one or another Miliband. They’re twins, after all. What happens if we get the evil twin? I’ve watched more than enough Hammer horror films to know this is surely a risk.

Of course, the day after landing back from Salzburg (and being almost delighted enough by my continued existence to stay in the Ibis Euston without feeling nauseous – honestly, a sign in the foyer says it’s all about European values and “the breath of France” – France has serious internal problems if its breath smells of Ibis, that’s all I can say.. sorry that’s far too long a parenthesis and this is simply adding to it) I had to jump into my first preview performance for the Fringe.

And I’ve been running the show ever since – which is what I now choose to call a lovely holiday. I work one hour a day (unless I’m doing some other bit of funny stuff, which might bring that up to a whole hour and a half) and potter for the rest of the time, grinning like a Muppet. Thus far the ladies and gentlemen have been splendid, the venue has been only just hot enough to melt bronze and nothing apocalyptic has happened with any wiring.

I have now passed into that very special state of tiredness that only the Fringe produces – the sort where you can endlessly perform magic tricks on yourself. For example, approximately eight times a day I open my travel wallet with its central panel flipped left instead of right and then wonder pathetically where all my money and cards have gone. My show this year involves a mug of tea which I managed to put in my bag yesterday when I left The Stand. I then opened said bag on the train going home, noticed the tea – still, amazingly, in the mug – lifted it out of my bag and drank it. Which allowed fellow passengers to assume that a) I am unhinged b) I am a bad, beverage-related mime c) I am an unhinged and bad children’s entertainer. Things can only get odder and I can hardly wait.

You can see AL Kennedy at the Edinburgh Fringe

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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