Why Michael Moore's sacking as Scottish Secretary will weaken the No campaign

The Lib Dem was a formidable opponent because his measured, moderate unionism was difficult for the nationalists to deal with.

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.

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore waits to be interviewed by a local television crew in Galashiels, Scotland earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

Getty Images.
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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.