Scottish independence poll puts Yes campaign in front

For the first time since August 2011, the nationalist side takes the lead by 44 to 43 per cent.

Until recently, every poll on Scottish independence since the beginning of 2012 had shown the No campaign in front, usually by a double-digit margin. But that trend ended today with the publication of a new Panelbase survey putting the Yes camp ahead by 44 to 43 per cent, the first time the nationalist side has led in a poll since August 2011. 

The poll was commissioned by the SNP and, as I've noted before, it's always wise to be sceptical of polls published by political parties, principally because the questions asked are often biased in favour of a particular outcome. But on the surface at least, there appear to be no oddities. 

Those polled between 23-28 August (the sample size was a respectable 1,043) were asked "There will be a referendum on an independent Scotland on 18th of September 2014. How do you intend to vote in response to the question: Should Scotland be an independent country?" In response, 44 per cent answered "Yes" (up seven points since the last Panelbase poll in July 2013) and 43 per cent answered "No" (down three points), with 13 per cent undecided. 

It's a stunning result for the SNP, and entirely at odds with the most recent YouGov poll (carried out a week earlier), which put the No campaign ahead by a record 30 points (59-29). Until other polls are published showing the nationalist side ahead, it's wise to treat survey with caution (lest it prove to be an outlier) but after months of setbacks, the result will be cited by Alex Salmond as proof of his recent claim in the New Statesman that the polls will shift in his favour as the referendum draws closer. He told Jason Cowley: "This is the phoney war. This is not the campaign. I went into an election [for the Scottish Parliament] in 2011 20 points behind in the polls and ended up 15 in front. The real game hasn’t even started. We are just clearing the ground."

In an encouraging precedent for Salmond, Panelbase was the first polling company to put the SNP ahead in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election. US polling oracle Nate Silver, who recently declared that there's "virtually no chance that the Yes side will win", is unlikely to be losing any sleep yet, but for the first time in more than two years, Salmond can point to some evidence that the battle is far from over. 

Update: Having looked at the full tables for the survey, it's now clear what might explain the anomalous result. Those polled were first asked whether they thought Scotland could be "a successful, independent country" and whether they trusted the Scottish government or Westminster to take "the best decisions for Scotland". It's likely that both questions nudged people towards supporting independence in the final question. All the more reason, as I said before, to treat the result with caution. 

Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond with David Cameron at the men's Wimbledon final earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.