Why Cameron's Scotland plan has rattled the SNP

The PM has called Salmond's bluff by demanding an independence referendum sooner rather than later.

Ever since the Scottish National Party's remarkable victory last May, Westminster has been in a state of shock, unsure how to proceed. But now, finally, David Cameron, determined not be remembered as the man who lost the Union, has resolved on a course of action. He will allow the SNP to stage its own binding referendum on independence on the condition that it is held in the next 18 months (any referendum after this date will be advisory, as it would always would have been) and that it offers a straight yes/no question on Scottish secession.

Cameron's move upsets Salmond's plans in several respects. The First Minister has long intended to hold a referendum in the second half of the Scottish parliament, perhaps in 2014 on the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, when he believes that discontent with the Tory-led government will be at its height. In addition, he planned for the ballot paper to feature two questions, one on independence and one on full fiscal autonomy or "devolution max". Aware that there may not be a majority for the former, the SNP leader is eyeing the consolation prize of "devo max", a stepping stone to full independence. But Cameron is determined to deny Salmond these two advantages. To add authority to his stance, he will publish a consultation paper later this week revealing legal advice that the referendum will only be binding if both parliaments agree to its timing and wording.

There is, of course, a risk that all this could backfire. Cameron's intervention could be seen as an attempt by the Tories - not a popular breed in Scotland - to hijack a referendum that the SNP has an electoral mandate to hold. It was an argument made at length by Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond's deputy, on the Today programme this morning. But, as she conceded, there is a potential contradiction in the SNP's stance. It maintains both that Cameron has no right to dictate the terms of the referendum and that his move will backfire. But if Cameron's move will backfire why is the Scottish government so opposed to it? The answer, as Sturgeon will not say, is that the SNP is not convinced there will be a majority for independence in the next 18 months (or ever) and, consequently, is determined to reserve the option of devolution max. Yes, some Scottish voters will resent Cameron's intervention but others will ask, "why doesn't Salmond want an early referendum? What's the big feartie afraid of?"

Set against this must be the disorganisation of the pro-Union side (who will lead the No campaign?) but Cameron has called Salmond's bluff and the initiative, for the first time in months, is with him.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

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