Morning Call: pick of the comment

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's papers.

1. Keep plugging away. The brand is a winner (Times)

The Tories think that the job of changing their party's image is complete, says Daniel Finkelstein. It isn't -- they must continue to reinforce their new brand. Complacency could be fatal.

2. The Innocent smoothies of politics are still the party of the rich (Guardian)

Jonathan Freedland agrees that the Conservative Party rebranding was an early success. But, he says, the Michael Ashcroft tax scandal plays into the public's expectations of the party -- the new Tory brand can't survive many more ugly revelations.

3. Charisma can only go so far for Cameron (Financial Times)

All the charisma in the world can't sort out the contradictions in the new Conservative message, says Matthew Engel. At the end of the day, politics is about beef as well as beefcake.

4. An appeal to the better nature of the baby boomers -- and Boris Johnson (Daily Telegraph)

The Tory front-bencher David Willetts responds to the Mayor of London's column in Monday's Telegraph, which challenged the argument of his new book. Willetts reaffirms that the contract between the generations is broken.

5. Belfast: this deal is a big deal (Guardian)

Devolution completes the Northern Irish jigsaw, but, says Denis Murray, in two years no one will remember that it was an issue. The DUP's main problem now is the formation of an ultra-traditionalist party that will split the unionist vote three ways.

6. Don't write off the US economy (Independent)

China and India may be growing much faster, says Hamish McRae, but in technical innovation there's no contest: the rest of the world looks to the United States for innovation.

7. Where have all the female firebrands gone? (Times)

In 1997 a record number of women MPs got into parliament, says Suzy Jagger. But their biggest achievement was getting elected -- women are not making heavyweight policy on the front benches, or causing trouble from the back benches.

8. Straw has left justice to the tender mercies of the press (Guardian)

The chief enemy of British freedom today is the British press, according to Simon Jenkins. Under the banner of transparency, ministers have allowed a frenzy of blame to develop around the Jon Venables case. This is a decline from the rule of law back towards the lynch mob.

9. Europe must confront its real economic problems (Independent)

Blaming speculators for the eurozone's woes is a displacement activity, says the leading article. Europe needs fundamental reforms to its labour markets and a big shift in internal demand.

10. Rob rich bankers and give money to the poor (Times)

Jeffrey Sachs makes the case for a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions; after all, Wall Street and the City did so little to deserve their record profits.

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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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