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.

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Eleven things that will definitely happen during the general election campaign

History is repeating itself, as the 2015 general election campaign is echoed in the 2017 snap vote.

The last election is happening all over again.

Here’s how:

1. Michael Fallon is wheeled out to link the opposition leader to nuclear war

2015

The smearer-in-chief Michael Fallon, or Minister for the Today Programme as he has sometimes been labelled, was unleashed by CCHQ to warn that as Ed Miliband “stabbed his own brother in the back” to lead Labour, he was “willing to stab the UK in the back” and threaten national security by doing a deal with the Scottish National Party to cancel Trident. It was nasty, untrue and sadly political rhetoric has only worsened since.

2017

The Tory Terminator is back! This time, aiming his nuclear wordheads at Jeremy Corbyn. But with essentially the same script as last time. Yes, the Labour leader was branded a “security risk” on Trident by the same Defence Secretary who was accused of keeping Parliament in the dark over a failed nuclear weapons test (which suggests no threat to national security at all, of course).

Fallon says Theresa May would fire Trident as a “first strike”. So once again in British politics, to prove you can be trusted with national security you have to be more committed than your opponent to starting a nuclear war.

2. The Conservatives will conjure up the prospect of coalition to scare voters

2015

In what appeared to be a rather risky strategy of constantly putting your opponents on your campaign literature, elegantly playing the recorder, the Tories banged on for weeks about Ed Miliband potentially doing a deal with the SNP in government. And somehow, despite actually being in coalition themselves, the Tories managed to make coalition sound scary enough for this strategy to work.

2017

Guys did you know that there is the chance of a “coalition of chaos” after the election? A “coalition of chaos”, yeah. What’s that, you say? We don’t know either, but it sounds good doesn’t it? “Coalition”. “Chaos”. Alliteration. No, we know there’s no chance of it happening either and that Labour is refusing to work with other parties anyway but stiiiiill “coalition of chaos” is definitely a thing. “Coalition of chaos”.

The good thing about this is that the coalition bogeyman may have less traction this time round because so few people see there being much likelihood of a Corbyn premiership.

3. Someone will photoshop the opposition leader incongruously wearing a flower crown and people will ask if it could affect the election result

2015

#Milifandom was the symbol of a more innocent time in our politics. “Whilst The Sun attacks the 17-year-old behind the Milifandom craze, young people have found an arena of their own in which to have political discussion without obvious tabloid bias,” one fan told the Independent on the eve of the election. “This will obviously have a bearing on the election.”

It didn’t.

2017

But don’t let your flowers wilt just yet, oh admiring youth of the ironic web! For Corbyn became a cult figure loved and memed by many, young and old, the moment he began campaigning to be Labour leader.


Not since flower-crowned Ed had Britain seen a politician so revered. Will this have a bearing on the election? Perhaps, but not in the way some fans may wish…

4. Russell Brand will say something and people will ask if it could affect the election result

2015

That thirsty thesaurus Russell Brand interviewed a number of politicians ahead of the general election campaign for his stressful YouTube channel The Trews and none was more anticipated than when Ed went round to his house a few days before the election. A performance filled with glottal stops and nonchalant shrugs, dropped tees and aitches left an audience clenched in cringe – and a Labour party without the endorsement it wanted. Brand went for the Greens in the end.

2017

He hasn’t had a cosy chat with Corbyn yet but Brand has just returned to live radio with a new show, and it looks like he won’t stay quiet for long as he’s already gatecrashed Katie Hopkins’ LBC show on live radio to lure “Hatie Hopkins” back to humanity.

5. A politician will be caught having the audacity to consume food

2015

Ed Miliband ate a bacon sandwich, and it made front page news. Read my colleague Amelia on why politicians eating in public is such a global preoccupation.

2017

Jeremy Corbyn has had many a food-based controversy. Giant marrow-wielding aside, he has angered Mumsnet with his dislike of biscuits, and called kebab shops “a place of great discourse and discussion” yet implored their owners to serve salad too to provide “the balanced diet that everybody needs”, further riling them by supporting the sugar tax.

6. People will trust or dismiss polls depending on whether they confirm their political bias

2015

Polling: The polls are neck and neck = the Tories will win it/Labour will win it.

Result: The Tories won an outright majority.

2017

Polling: The Tories have a historic poll lead = the Tories will win it/Labour will win it.

Result: We know now never to make predictions because…

7. Every single one will be wrong

2015

For a while after the result, everything looked like this…

2017

…so guys why should we believe the polls this time round saying Labour will be destroyed?

8. Apart from the ones that show Labour doing badly

2015

2017

Oh.

9. Which will be extremely accurate

Great.

10. Well-timed colds will cover up difficult policy positions

2015

Luckily, then Green party leader Natalie Bennett had a cold, which meant she was able to casually cough and sneeze her way through LBC’s questioning on her housing policy. So smooth. No one noticed. Cough.

2017

Not strictly part of the election campaign, but Labour’s shadow home secretary Diane Abbott was thought to have a bout of “Brexit flu”, hence missing the first Commons vote to trigger Article 50.

11. Nigel Farage will lose his seat

2015

In a beautifully degrading snapshot beside Al Murray’s Pub Landlord little Englander caricature, the then Ukip leader Nigel Farage lost in South Thanet – failing to be elected to Parliament for the seventh time.

2017

Will there be an eighth time? With his successor Paul Nuttall apparently preferring to lock himself in a room away from journalists asking whether he’ll be running for a seat, it looks like Farage is still the party’s main hope.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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