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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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.