Beltway Briefing

The top stories from US politics today.

1. Michele Bachmann has released the first election advert of her campaign. In it she plays Bachmann Bingo, reeling off the Bachmann facts that are almost mandatory for any report on the Minnesotan congresswoman. Five kids? Check. 23 foster kids? Check. Tax lawyer? Check. It does have a jaunty soundtrack though.

 

2. Barack Obama's polling numbers were flat during June according to the latest Gallup poll, as the sheen from killing Bin Laden wears off and the US's stagnant economy takes its toll on voters.

Barack Obama June 2011 poll numbers. 

3. Obama met with leaders from Congress for a debt summit in the White House today, with the aim of raising the US debt ceiling to prevent a potential default - the dealine for which is 2 August. Obama is expected to propose cutting the country's deficit by up to $4tr (£2.5tr) over a decade. The US currently runs an estimated $1.5 trillion (£932 billion) annual budget deficit.

4.Mitt Romney enjoyed some facetime with David Cameron today, according to his Twitter account. The PM appeared anxious not to be seen with the Repbulican Romney, and did not make a song and dance about the visit. Perhaps he is still mindful of the distatse triggered in some quarters by photos of Cameron and John McCain in 2008. Whether this one will prove as embarassing remains to be seen.

David Cameron with Mitt Romney 

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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