Labour begins the year ahead but Cameron is still preferred to Miliband

First poll of the year gives Labour a 12-point lead but Cameron is eight points ahead as "the best prime minister".

If, as Harold Wilson said, a week is a long time in politics then two and a half years is an eternity. But that hasn't stopped commentators speculating about the result of the 2015 general election. In a notable piece for the Daily Telegraph just before the new year, former Tory MP and ConservativeHome executive editor Paul Goodman suggested that David Cameron should abandon any hope of winning a majority (an argument I made after Nick Clegg killed the boundary changes last August). His piece prompted a response from the energetic Conservative chairman Grant Shapps who, unsurprisingly, insisted that the race was from over and one from his ConHome colleague Tim Montgomerie, who argued that a Conservative majority, while unlikely, remained possible.

The first YouGov poll of the year offers evidence to support both arguments. Labour is on 43 per cent, 12 points ahead of the Conservatives (compared to a lead of just two at the start of 2012), a lead that, on a uniform swing, would see Ed Miliband enter Downing Street with a majority of 116 seats.

Poll leads, of course, can come and go. In February 1981, Michael Foot led Margaret Thatcher by 16 points. Yet aided by the "Falklands bounce" and the splintering of the centre-left vote, the Conservatives went on to win a majority of 144 seats in 1983. But even if the Tories chip away at Labour's lead in advance of the next election (as they surely will), it's hard to see them remaining the single largest party, let alone winning a majority. The Lib Dems' veto of the boundary changes means that Labour needs a lead of just one point on a uniform swing to win a majority; the Tories, by contrast, require one of seven. Since fewer people tend to vote in Labour constituencies, the party is able to win more seats with the same number of votes.

In the face of these daunting odds, one of the principal reasons why the Tories remain optimistic about their chances is David Cameron's consistent lead over Ed Miliband as the best prime minister. While Cameron's lead has narrowed since a year ago, when it stood at 24 points (41-17), he retains an eight-point advantage (33-25. Nick Clegg is on five per cent with "don't know" leading on 38 per cent). In the wake of his bravura conference speech, Miliband reduced Cameron's lead to four (31-27) but the gap soon widened again.

But this is a parliamentary system, you say, why should we care? The answer is that personal ratings are frequently a better long-term indicator of the election result than voting intentions. Labour often led the Tories under Neil Kinnock, for instance (sometimes by as much as 24 points), but Kinnock was never rated above John Major as a potential prime minister. A more recent example is the 2011 Scottish parliament election, which saw Alex Salmond ranked above Iain Gray even as Labour led in the polls. The final result, of course, was an SNP majority.

In an attempt to exploit Cameron's advantage over Miliband, the Tories intend to run a highly presidential campaign, asking the voters: do you want David Cameron or Ed Miliband as your prime minister? It's hard to see this overriding factors such as the collapse in the Lib Dem vote (which will gift Labour victory in scores of Tory-Labour marginals) but it is in Cameron, who remains more popular than his party, that Tory hopes continue to reside.

Thirty three per cent of voters believe David Cameron would make the best prime minister, compared to 25 per cent for Ed Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Stop pretending an independent Scotland couldn't join the EU

The SNP has a different set of questions to answer. 

"But Spain", is the common response to a discussion of whether, by voting for independence, Scotland could effectively reverse Brexit. "Disaster for Sturgeon as Spain BACKS May over plans to block Scottish independence vote," declared the Brexiteer's favourite, The Express, this month. Spain, according to this narrative, would unilaterally puncture the SNP's bubble by vetoing readmission to the EU. An independent Scotland would be cast adrift into the North Sea.

I just don't buy it. I have put this question to everyone from former EU member state ambassadors to the former World Trade Organisation head and the answer has been the same: "It can be managed." 

There is also a crucial difference between Spain vetoing Scotland entering the EU, and considering its application on its own merit. Spain is indeed nervous about encouraging Catalonian separatists. But read between the lines. Spain's position on Scotland has so far been to say it would have to exit the EU, become independent and reapply. 

Last time I checked, that's not a veto. And from an EU perspective, this isn't as arduous as it might sound. Scotland's regulations would be in line with EU regulations. It would not upset the balance of power, nor fuel an identity crisis, in the way that Turkey's application did. Spain could justify acquiesence on the basis that the circumstances were extraordinary. And for a club struggling to hold together, an eager defector from the renegade Brexit Britain would be a PR coup. 

Where it is far more arduous is for the Scottish National Party, and the independence movement. As I've written before, roughly a third of SNP voters also voted Leave. Apart from the second-glass-of-wine question of whether quitting one union to join another really counts as independence, Scotland's fishing industry has concrete concerns about the EU. SNP MP Joanna Cherry has observed that it is "no secret" that many Leave voters worked in fishing. 

Then there are the questions all but the most diehard Remain voters will want answered. Would Scotland take the Euro? Would a land border with England be an acceptable sacrifice? Would an independent Scotland in the EU push for reforms at Brussels, or slavishly follow bureacracy's lead? The terms of EU membership for an independent Scotland may look quite different from those enjoyed by the UK.

Rather than continuing to shoot down the idea that an independent Scotland could join the EU - a club happy to accept other small countries like Ireland, Austria and Malta - opponents of the Scottish independence movement should be instead asking these questions. They are far harder to answer. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.