Why Alex is staying in Jurassic Park

Scottish MPs at Westminster are "an endangered species with increasingly obsolete roles". Thus spake Alex Salmond as leader of the Scottish National Party.

When he stood down from that post, it was assumed he was weary of beating his head against the brick wall that is the Scottish electorate's refusal to cut ties with the UK. There was talk that he might cry "a pox on both your Houses" and quit Holyrood as well as Westminster.

So it is exceedingly strange that the SNP campaign to win more obsolescent seats at Westminster in the coming general election will be led by . . . none other than the man who is known, with varying degrees of affection, as Smart Alex.

Labour has been quick to accuse him of "crass hypocrisy". In the run-up to devolution, he had boasted that he was "one of the few people at Westminster trying to get out". And last July, when he announced that he was resigning as leader of the SNP, he cited the achievement of "moving from the fringe of Westminster to centre stage in the Scots Parliament" and pledged that he would remain as the MSP for Banff and Buchan.

Now, he hopes to drop the "S" and retain his status as MP. All very baffling - and a couple of hours over lunch with Salmond does not solve the mystery.

When he resigned the leadership and moved to the back benches with no particular role, it was widely expected that the former Royal Bank of Scotland oil economist would pop up in a lucrative post in the financial world. Salmond laughs this off: "I had a big job in the City before politics, so why would I go back to that? Ten years seems to be the lifespan for a party leader and, for me, that was long enough."

Perhaps closer to the truth is that he had become too big a fish for the smaller pond that is the Scottish Parliament. Perversely, he may hate the Union but he relished his status as a politician to watch - and his moments in the limelight, such as the time he was ejected from the Commons for interrupting Nigel Lawson's Budget speech in 1988.

He looks forward to a new position as leader of the SNP group in the Commons: "I hope to have Tony Blair on the ropes. He gets a hell of an easy ride in parliament now that William Hague has shaded off."

Salmond did not need much urging from John Swinney, his successor as SNP leader, who pointed out that his experience would be badly needed by the SNP group in the next UK parliament. With all the present Nationalist MPs opting for Holyrood and whatever talent the party had sprinkled among its 35 MSPs, there has been not so much a selection process as a barrel-scraping to contest the 72 Westminster seats.

Salmond justifies an SNP presence on the green benches: "As long as Westminster has influence over Scotland, the SNP has to be represented there. That is an important field of battle for us because we must oppose the people there who are hostile to independence or hostile to the Scottish Parliament."

He recalls the insults hurled from Westminster at the First Minister, Henry McLeish, the Scottish Executive and the Edinburgh parliament in the recent furore over care for the elderly: "That showed there are not too many friends of the Scottish Parliament down there. Their antagonism and prejudices against devolution will come out in debates on financing Scottish government and the impetus will be to short-change Scotland. Our impetus will be to win still more powers for the Scottish Parliament."

Salmond and Swinney boast that they are going into the general election with "a higher opinion poll rating than ever before in our history". Their real position, however, confirms the SNP's failure to break through the ceiling of one-third of the Scottish vote. The latest System Three poll for the Herald shows the party at 35 per cent in first-choice votes for the Scottish Parliament, but only 28 per cent in voting intentions for Westminster - enough to retain their six Westminster seats, but not much more.

Oddly, the SNP's campaign launch concentrated on the core issues of health, unemployment and the NHS, all of which have been devolved from Westminster. But its new slogan "We stand for Scotland" reveals that its true strategy will be to appeal to the keep-Labour-on-their-toes vote.

"In a tight election," says Salmond, "people might think, 'Don't let the Tories in', but if it's all over down south, it's a great position for the SNP. You only have to ask the question: Is William Hague going to be Prime Minister? Not likely!

"Scotland always gets a better deal when the SNP is stronger. The establishment of the Scottish Office over 100 years ago was a response to Scottish public feeling; the Scottish Development Agency in the 1970s was a result of the Nationalist surge. And SNP strength in the 1990s created the conditions for a Scottish parliament."

Salmond still speaks scornfully of the Scottish Labour MPs as "irrelevant dinosaurs", yet he seems happy enough to join them in Jurassic Park, SW1.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Exclusive: how Labour could lose

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide