There’s nothing Alex Salmond loves more than a rammy with the Secretary of State for Scotland. Since he first became SNP leader in 1990, he’s seen a dozen of them come and go – and he has battled hard, over everything from devolution and Megrahi to additional powers and independence, against each one. So the news this morning that the understated Michael Moore has been replaced as Scottish Secretary, after three years in the job, by the combative Liberal Democrat chief whip Alistair Carmichael will have delighted the First Minister.
Moore was sacked because the Cabinet had grown anxious about his conciliatory approach to the independence referendum. In contrast to the belligerent tone adopted by most senior figures in the No campaign (see Phillip Hammond’s interview in the Daily Mail today), Moore made an effort to deal with the SNP on equal terms. It was a surprisingly effective strategy which helped undermine the nationalists’ view of Westminster as brittle, distant and uncompromising.
Moore also seemed to respect Scottish institutions – one reason, no doubt, the "Edinburgh Agreement" negotiations over the timing, format and legal basis of the referendum went relatively smoothly. Carmichael, on the other hand, comes from an entirely different school of unionism. In 2007, as the Liberal Democrats’ Scotland spokesman, he called for the Scottish Office to be abolished and absorbed into a new "Department for Nations and Regions". This sort of rhetoric only ever plays into SNP hands.
So what is the point of Carmichael’s appointment? By furiously exaggerating the potential economic pitfalls of independence, Better Together is already running the most relentlessly aggressive campaign it can. Granted, Moore was trounced by Nicola Sturgeon in a recent television debate, but there’s limit to how much staged media events influence public opinion.
Moore’s sacking is a classic Westminster misreading of the Scottish situation. London is obsessed with the idea that a big hitter” is needed to "take on" Salmond. Yet quite apart from the fact that Carmichael is hardly a "big hitter", the First Minister relishes (and has a habit of winning) confrontations that allow him to pit plucky, populist Holyrood against the big, clunking fist of Whitehall. Moore was a formidable opponent because his measured, moderate unionism was difficult for the nationalists to deal with. For no good reason at all, the no campaign has just dumped one of its strongest cards.