Lord Ashcroft and Andrew Cooper call on Tories to publish private marginals poll

After a Tory strategist claimed a private poll put them two points ahead of Labour in marginal seats, the party comes under pressure to release its findings.

When I reported yesterday on Tory claims that a rerun of Lord Ashcroft's marginals poll (with the sitting MPs named) put them two points ahead of Labour (rather than 14 points behind), I wrote that the good Lord would be "watching closely". As anticipated, Ashcroft has now intervened, accusing the Tories, in a withering piece on ConservativeHome, of resorting to "comfort polling". 

In the original article, by the Telegraph's Dan Hodges, a "Tory analyst" was quoted as saying: "We reran it in the seats we hold but included the name of the sitting MP. We were ahead by 2 per cent." The existence of an "incumbency effect" (which naming the existing MP would encourage) is not disputed. In 2010, both Tory and Labour incumbents performed disproportionately well. Labour's vote fell by 5.2 per cent in those seats where the incumbent stood again, compared to 7.4 per cent elsewhere, while the Tories' rose by 4.1 per cent in incumbent seats, compared to 2.9 per cent elsewhere.

But as I pointed out, this leaves some important questions unanswered. Were other candidates named? (Voters may well prefer an individual to an amorphous party.) How were the questions worded? ("Will you vote for your hard-working local MP Matthew Hancock rather than the 'welfare party'?") What was the sample size? What was the weighting? 

These concerns are also raised by Ashcroft, who writes: "As worrying is the idea that the private poll 'included the name of the sitting MP' but – by implication, and of necessity since not all candidates will have been selected – nobody else. It would not be surprising if this skewed the result considerably in favour of the incumbent. Did the party really spend money on a such a flawed survey?

"Even if they did, it sounds unlikely that you could transform a double-digit deficit to a two-point lead simply by naming the MP. Which makes one wonder about other aspects of the poll. Which seats was it conducted in? What was the sample size? How was it weighted? How were the questions worded? With most polls, including mine, all this information is published. Where it is not, it is worth taking any reported results with more than a pinch of salt." He also asked, "why haven't the results been published per the pollsters code". 

As Ashcroft notes, off-the-record briefings on private polling should always be treated with scepticism. With this in mind, I've written to the British Polling Council asking whether the poll should now be published in accordance with its disclosure rules. As the BPC states, "In the event that the results of a privately commissioned poll are made public by a third party (i.e. external to the organisation that commissioned the survey, its employees and its agents — for example the leak of embargoed research) the survey organisation must place information on its website within two working days in order to place the information that has been released into proper context."

Andrew Cooper, David Cameron's former director of strategy and the founder of Populus (and co-founder of the BPC), has argued on Twitter that the poll should be released (if it exists at all).

The outcome is likely to depend on whether the pollster in question is a member of the BPC. Since surveys must be released "within two working days", I should get an answer shortly. 

Lord Ashcroft at the Conservative conference in Birmingham last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.