Margaret Curran will struggle against the SNP

The new Shadow Scotland Secretary is a dogged campaigner, but better candidates have been overlooked

Margaret Curran, MP for Glasgow East, has replaced Ann McKechin as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland following Ed Miliband's first front bench reshuffle as leader of the Labour Party.

Curran served in the Scottish Parliament for 12 years between 1999 and 2011, rising to national prominence in 2008 when she lost a crucial by-election to the SNP -- a moment which, for many, marked the beginning of the end of Gordon Brown's premiership.

Curran's record as a dogged grassroots campaigner and opponent of independence ensures her appointment will be popular with Scottish Labour's activist base, which is desperate to take on a nationalist party still riding high in the polls six months after their momentous victory in the Holyrood elections.

At the same time, however, she represents a gamble for Labour. Her history of awkward gaffes and poor debate performances could put the party at a disadvantage in the run up to the forthcoming independence referendum, as well as at the 2012 Glasgow City Council elections, which the SNP believes it can win. Further, her close association with the failures of outgoing Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray (she helped write the party's May manifesto) will leave her exposed to nationalist accusations of incompetence, tribalism and negativity.

So why Curran? The role of the Shadow Scotland Secretary is going to be hugely important over the coming months and years as the Unionist parties try to upset Alex Salmond's bid to break-up Britain, yet Labour's most talented Scots, Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander, appear wholly reluctant to take up the challenge.

One possible explanation for their reticence is that they know the First Minster does not poll well with woman and were as such happy to see another woman promoted to the position after McKechin. Another is that they are simply more interested in furthering their Westminster ambitions than in spending the next three years engaged in a bitter, arduous debate about Scotland's constitutional future.

But even with Murphy and Alexander unavailable or unwilling, there were other, perhaps better equipped, candidates waiting in the wings. 30-year-old Gemma Doyle, MP for West Dumbartonshire, has shown promise since she entered parliament at the last General Election, as has Gregg McClymont, a 35-year-old former Oxford history don who represents Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (read his New Statesman profile here).

In reality, though, there is probably a more prosaic reason behind Curran's promotion: the old Scottish Labour career structure ensures that loyal party servants are justly rewarded. Labour's next leader in Scotland will certainly have his or her work cut out in dragging their comrades into the 21st century.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.