CommentPlus: pick of the papers

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

1. Cameron's Tories point to isolation (Financial Times)

If the Tories win the election, they will find themselves oddly isolated from mainstream conservatism in both the US and Europe, writes Gideon Rachman. David Cameron's decision to distance his party from the US has left it without any coherent focus for its foreign policy.

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2. Gordon Brown must now tell the voters why they deserve more of him (Daily Telegraph)

It is not enough for Brown to offer a demolition of the opposition's economic policies, writes Mary Riddell; he needs to create a sense of optimism. He should begin by promising not to raise VAT.

3. Thirteen years on, New Labour has come full circle (Times)

Like the Conservatives in 1997, Labour has decided to pursue a strategy of fear, not hope, writes Rachel Sylvester. It is the Tories whose theme will be "Things can only get better".

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4. Hacks and the Yard? We're still asking (Guardian)

Scotland Yard has gone to extraordinary lengths to suppress evidence of the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World, says Nick Davies. But despite the Yard's attempt to mislead the public and the press, the questions will not go away.

5. Obama's 21st-century world order (Independent)

Barack Obama's instinct in devising foreign policy reflects an unusual ability to see the other side's point of view, writes Mary Dejevsky. By abolishing talk of the "axis of evil" and appealing directly to Iranians, he has made it harder to demonise the US.

6. South Africa will survive the killing of a neofascist -- like in 1994 (Guardian)

The murder of Eugene Terre'Blanche will not be the spark for a race war, writes Gillian Slovo. His Afrikaner Resistance Movement suffered an irreparable defeat at the time of the 1994 election.

7. An amazing Afrikaner -- wrong about everything (Times)

Elsewhere, Hugo Rifkind says that Terre'Blanche may have exploited the language of a segregationist, but he was actually something far worse -- a racial supremacist.

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8. Israel knows apartheid has no future (Financial Times)

After decades of illegally occupying Palestinian land, Israeli leaders are finally acknowledging reality, writes Mustafa Barghouthi.

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9. I wish I'd had the NI policy to call on as a Tory candidate (Independent)

The former Tory MP Michael Brown says that although the party's pledge to reverse Labour's planned National Insurance increase may be dodgy economics, it is also smart politics. The Tories have armed their candidates with the ammunition they will need on the doorstep.

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10. The election for change (Times)

In a special full-length editorial, the Times sets out the changes it wants to see in Britain over the next five years.

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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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