The flaws of Cameron's Unionism

The PM failed to offer a truly positive alternative to Scottish independence.

It was an unusually humble David Cameron who spoke in Edinburgh today. He admitted that the Conservative Party "isn't currently Scotland's most influential political movement", adding that "more than a little humility" is called for when any contemporary Tory speaks in the country. And, with no little sincerity, he brushed aside those who point out that the Tories would benefit politically if Scotland went it alone. "I'm not here to make a case on behalf of my party, its interests or its approach to office. I'm here to stand up and speak out for what I believe in," he said.

Unlike some opponents of independence, Cameron focused on the positive case for the Union, rather than the negative case against an independent Scotland. In an eloquent and emotional paean to the UK, he declared that "we have turned a group of off-shore European islands into one of the most successful countries in the world."

But it's not hard to see why his speech will have left many Scots cold. It took some chutzpah for Cameron to claim that "we all benefit from being part of a properly-funded welfare system" when his government is imposing £18bn of welfare cuts.

In a reference to the failed Glasgow Airport terrorist attack, he boasted that the "the full resources of the UK state went into running down every lead. Our tentacles reach from the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the CIA computers at Langley." But for many Scots, this will serve only as a reminder of the disastrous foreign policy pursued by the UK government in recent years. An independent Scotland would not have gone to war with Iraq or become trapped in Afghanistan and, some will say, would have been safer as a result.

Cameron held out the possibility of further devolution after the referendum but was notably vague about the form this could take. The danger for the Unionist parties is that Scottish voters, the majority of whom support fiscal autonomy, conclude that the only way to win it is to vote for full independence. If Cameron wants to offer a truly positive alternative to secession, he should embrace "devo max".

The campaign against Scottish independence will not lead by Cameron but by social democratic heavyweights like Alistair Darling, Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell. Today's speech was a reminder of why.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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