Labour unveils Team Scotland to take on SNP

13 Scottish MPs have been charged with the responsibility of taking on the Nationalists

Labour has assembled a crack-team of 13 Scottish MPs to spearhead the fight against the SNP in the run up to the forthcoming independence referendum, which the Scottish Government has pledged to hold sometime between 2014 and 2016.

Led by new Shadow Scotland Secretary Margaret Curran, it is composed of some of the party's brightest young Scottish talent, including Gemma Doyle and Gregg McClymont, and a number of its more established figures like ex-Defence Secretary Lord Browne and former MSP and Scottish Executive minister Cathy Jamieson.

Commenting on its formation, Curran said the new group - which she described as "powerful"- would focus on the "big economic issues" and work to "hold the government at Westminster to account day in, day out". In an echo of the attack line used by Scottish Labour during its disastrous Holyrood election campaign earlier this year, she also drew a parallel between the Nationalist administration in Edinburgh and the Coalition administration in London: "These are tough times for many families caught between a Tory government cutting too hard and too fast, and an SNP government whose economic policy simply isn't working."

However, the precise remit of 'Team Scotland' is unclear. How will it relate to the party north of the border, particularly in light of the latter's efforts to distance itself from Westminster influence? What part will it play in opposing Scottish Government policy, a role which had up until now been reserved for the MSP group? Crucially, will it be accountable to the next Scottish leader or to Ed Miliband?

These questions lay bare the dilemma Labour has found itself in with regard to Scotland over the last few years. For instance, if Curran's troupe is answerable to Miliband, the SNP will, rightly, take it as confirmation that the party has failed to come to terms with the nationalist dynamics currently fuelling Scotland's drive toward greater autonomy. If not, Salmond and his supporters will cite it as evidence that the Unionists are dancing to a separatist tune and claim a further, albeit minor, victory in their bid to dismantle the British political structure. Either way, Labour comes off second best and Curran certainly has her work cut out.

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.