With the SNP on course to win a second term in next week's Scottish parliamentary elections, Ed Miliband has finally woken up to the danger that Labour is in. After failing to turn the election into a referendum on the Westminster coalition, Miliband is now warning that another SNP victory would trigger the break-up of the Union.
The Labour leader tells today's Financial Times: "If Alex Salmond were to win a second term, he has said it would give him moral authority in relation to independence . . . I think that would be a disaster for Scotland; I think it would be a disaster for the United Kingdom."
Yet the SNP's remarkable poll surge is not the result of any increase in anti-Union sentiment. The most recent poll on the subject showed that just 33 per cent would vote in favour of independence, were a referendum to be held.
It is precisely for this reason that many no longer fear voting for Salmond's party. They are free to endorse his welfarist policies (no tuition fees, no NHS prescription charges, free personal care for the elderly, free school meals for all five-to-eight-year-olds), safe in the knowledge that they retain a veto over independence.
A poll of polls published in the Herald suggests that the SNP can expect to win as many as 60 seats on 5 May, 13 more than it holds at present and just five short of an overall majority. Should Salmond form another informal pact with the pro-independence Greens, who are on course to win about five seats, he will finally have the votes required to hold a referendum.
Miliband's decision to thrust himself into the campaign at the eleventh hour means that he will share in the blame for defeat. Labour, which is hopelessly divided over electoral reform, will not condemn Miliband if AV is rejected on 5 May. But party figures are already warning that the disastrous Scottish campaign contains "lessons" for the Labour leader.
A "Labour moderniser" tells the FT: "It's a warning of what happens when you are ahead in the polls and think you can win by playing it safe." If Labour can't win in Scotland, they will say, where can it win?