A positive message is the key to stopping Salmond

Darling is right to put the positive case for the Union.

The title of the "no" to Scottish independence campaign - Better Together - is indicative of the group's determination to make a positive case for the Union, rather than merely a negative case against secession. Alistair Darling, who launched the campaign in Edinburgh this morning, rightly rejected the argument that an independent Scotland would be economically unviable. Rather, he pointed out that both Scotland and England have more to lose than to gain from a break-up:

The truth is we can have the best of both worlds: a strong Scottish Parliament and a key role in a strong and secure United Kingdom.

It was not the case that Scotland could not survive as a separate, independent state, he said. "Of course it could. This is about what unites us, not about what divides us.

He added:

We make a positive case for staying together. A positive case that celebrates not just what makes us distinctive but also celebrates what we share.

We put the positive case for staying together. We are positive about our links with the rest of the United Kingdom, through families and friendships, through trade and through shared political, economical and cultural institutions.

We're positive about being a proud nation within a larger state and the far wider range of opportunities for our people that this creates.

We're positive about all of the identities that we share - Scottish, British, European, citizens of the world - and don't see the need to abandon any of them.

The other point that Better Together is keen to make is that the version of independence offered by Alex Salmond is increasingly indistinguishable from the status quo. An independent Scotland would retain the Queen as its head of state, the pound as its currency, and apply for EU and, perhaps, Nato membership. As Jason asked in a recent column, what kind of independence is this?

Having abandoned  his previous enthusiasm for euro membership (Salmond quipped in 2009 that sterling was "sinking like a stone" and that the euro was viewed more "favourably), the SNP leader now favours a "currency union" with the UK. Yet as Darling pointed out this morning, monetary union leads remorselessly to fiscal union (as the euro crisis has demonstrated). In other words, Scotland would end up back where it started. Why change so much (separate embassies, separate armed forces, a separate civil service) and yet so little?

Darling had little to say about the possibility of further devolution but this is a subject the campaign will need to address in the future. As Douglas Alexander has previously said, "we must be open-minded on how we can improve devolution's powers, including fiscal powers, but be resolute in our rejection of separation". So long as Salmond can spend money without having to raise it, the SNP will remain a formidable force.

Meanwhile, it appears that Salmond and the UK government are no closer to reaching agreement on the wording of the independence referendum. Cameron is still refusing to offer legal approval for Salmond's plan to hold a two-question ballot (one on independence and one on "devo max") in autumn 2014, a few weeks after the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn.

The SNP leader has now issued an ultimatum (£), threatening to hold his own poll on election day in 2015 if he fails to win legal approval for a 2014 referendum. This would be an advisory vote designed to provide Salmond with a clear mandate to negotiate for independence. It would be open to challenge in the courts but, as I've previously noted, Scottish Secretary Michael Moore has suggested that the UK government would not launch that challenge itself. If the referendum is to be held before 2015, the two sides now have just a few months to reach an agreement.

Former Chancellor Alistair Darling launched the Better Together campaign today in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.