What keeps Alex Salmond awake at night?

A full war chest and a charismatic leader doesn't guarantee referendum success.

Asked by Shaun Ley on Radio 4's The World at One, if he thought "devo max" -- a souped up version of Scotland's current form of autonomy -- rather than all-out independence was a more likely outcome of a future referendum, Alex Salmond was characteristically defiant.

"No, I think we'll win the independence referendum," Scotland's First Minister and SNP leader said. And you would expect him to say little else. A seasoned politician, he knows the dangers of accepting the premise of a journalist's question such as this. Moreover, independence has been always been the goal -- and the dream.

But the runners-up prize -- which would give Holyrood control over tax and spend but not foreign policy nor defence -- may be as good as it gets for Salmond and his party. And even that is not a given.

There is little doubt that Salmond is a highly admired, and feared, political operator. As Jonathan Freedland points out in this morning's Guardian, this is a man who is fêted even by his opponents. And it was the Times which earlier this week named him Briton of the Year. (Given Salmond's separatist designs, the compliment was loaded, if not backhanded.)

The same paper carried a two-page feature (£) today on the possibility of an independent Scotland. To quote the introduction:

A full war chest, a charismatic leader and superior tactics -- can anything stop the SNP's independence campaign?

Turning John Rentoul's famed meme on its head, this is a question to which the answer is yes. The independence vote -- tipped to take place in June 2014 to coincide with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn -- may turn out to be a double defeat, and here's why.

Firstly, Salmond's popularity doesn't necessarily equate to popularity for independence. As John Curtice, professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, notes in the Times article, those who jumped late on to the SNP bandwagon as last May's Holyrood elections approached were far from ideological. Support for the SNP doesn't always mean support for a clean break from the Union.

And after a post-election bounce, a familiar pattern to polling returned by late summer -- namely, those in favour of independence fell below 40 per cent. A TNS poll for the Sunday Herald in September, for example, had those who would vote yes at 39 per cent compared to 38 per cent who would vote no. A lead for sure, but far from decisive.

"Devo max", meanwhile, appears more popular, although don't be fooled by what UK Polling Report's Anthony Wells rightly describes as some "voodoo polling".

But here's the catch. The key gain from devolution max is fiscal autonomy but opinion polls are evenly divided between those who think the economy will perform better under Holyrood control, those that think it will make no difference, and those who think it will perform worse. As Curtice notes:

This is the most vital part of the argument that the SNP has still to win. Once you start trying to predict for and against independence, the economy is very important.

As a referendum gets closer, expect those fighting for the Union to exploit these doubts over the economy.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.