Salmond remains the Scottish Yes campaign’s biggest asset

Despite recent setbacks, the First Minister's ratings remain higher than those of any party leader.

There is little doubt that Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the "Yes" to independence campaign have had a bruising few months. Ipsos-MORI's June poll clearly illustrated this triple whammy with support for independence falling to 35%, SNP ratings dropping by four points and net satisfaction with the First Minister falling by nine points since December to +13%.

Salmond has long been held in high esteem by other politicians and commentators across the UK and beyond. Admired by supporters and colleagues and respected by opponents, he has long had an aura of dominance not seen since the early days of the Blair premiership.

So is the recent slump in the First Minister’s popularity a blip from which he will recover or a sign of more bad news ahead? Of course, given it’s the issue dominating Scottish politics at present, the public’s view of Salmond is going to be parly tied up with attitudes towards independence. Some commentators interpret recent setbacks as explicable in the context of a summer where Britishness is being celebrated through the jubilee and the Olympics, in the aftermath of a criticised launch of the "Yes" campaign and amidst the continued economic gloom which may lead voters to feel more anxious about their jobs and mortgages if Scotland were to break away from the rest of the UK.

Yet despite these setbacks, the First Minister commands higher levels of satisfaction than any party leader in Holyrood or Westminster and a look at Ipsos-MORI data from the 1970s onwards shows that even his reduced ratings in recent polls make him the envy of most political leaders.   

Our August 2011 poll, conducted with the SNP still basking in the glory of its unprecedented election victory, showed 62% of Scots satisfied with the job the First Minister was doing. Put in context this is only surpassed in any meaningful way by the early days of the New Labour government when Blair enjoyed approval ratings of up to 75% among British voters in late 1997 and in 1998. When you consider that Salmond has been in power since 2007, his approval ratings are still high when compared with those of any Prime Minister after the same length of time in office.

There are two other noteworthy aspects of Salmond’s ratings. First, his personal approval rating far outweighs support for independence. Second, his rating is high among that vital group in the electorate, those who support greater powers for the Scottish Parliament but who oppose independence.  This is the group that the "Yes" campaign has to win over if it is to stand any chance of winning the referendum in 2014, 48% of whom think Salmond is doing a good job. Both these factors point to the First Minister’s ability to appeal to those who don’t necessarily agree with everything he stands for.

There are significant challenges ahead for the First Minister, not least the need to address the fact that support for him and for independence is lower among women and older people than among other groups of voters. There is also the fundamental problem that support for independence is not moving beyond around a third of voters in any poll, with little sign of this changing. But this is a long campaign and there is time to address these challenges. And as things currently stand, the First Minister remains Scotland’s dominant politician and a clear asset to the "Yes" campaign.

Mark Diffley is research director of Ipsos-MORI Scotland. He tweets as @markdiffley1.

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond arrives at the world premiere of Disney Pixar’s "Brave" at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California. Photograph: Getty Images.

Mark Diffley is research director of Ipsos-MORI Scotland. He tweets as @markdiffley1.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.