Salmond's only hope of victory is a Tory recovery

To triumph against the odds, the Yes campaign needs fear of a Conservative government and permanent austerity to push voters towards independence.

After trailing in the polls by a double-digit margin for most of the last year, Yes Scotland is hoping that the launch of today's independence White Paper marks the beginning of a remarkable comeback. Alex Salmond has long spoken of the possibility of a revival similar to that enjoyed by the SNP against Labour in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election. He told the NS back in June, "This is the phoney war. This is not the campaign. I went into an election [for the Scottish Parliament] in 2011 20 points behind in the polls and ended up 15 in front. The real game hasn’t even started. We are just clearing the ground." 

Only the foolhardy would write off a campaigner as formidable as Salmond, but the odds are overwhelmingly against him. There has never been a majority for independence in Scotland (around 20 per cent of SNP voters support the Union) and the uncertainty created by the financial crisis and its aftermath has made voters even more reluctant to take that leap into the dark. The SNP's refusal to publish the legal advice on whether Scotland would inherit Britain’s membership of the EU and the uncertainty over its preferred option of a currency union with the rest of the UK (Unionist figures privately suggest that they may pledge to stage a referendum on the issue and Wales has already vowed to veto it) have also damaged its cause. After pledging to preserve so many of the features of the British state - the monarchy, the pound, Nato membership - independence looks increasingly like a solution in search of a problem. 

The great irony of today's launch is that the headline announcement was on childcare (the SNP pledged to ensure that, over time, "every child from age one to starting school is guaranteed 30 hours of provision for 38 weeks of the year"), an area already devolved to Holyrood (Nicola Sturgeon responded by saying that she didn't want the additional tax revenue raised by parents returning to work to accrue to Westminster). Salmond repeated his promise to abolish the bedroom tax, the issue that he has predicted "might well have the same galvanising effect as the poll tax". But Ed Miliband's unambiguous pledge to do the same means this is less likely to prove the elixir he needs.

The increasing probability of a Labour victory in 2015 has helped to further tilt the odds against independence. One of the arguments Salmond made for secession was the risk that the UK could leave the EU. Earlier this year he gleefully cited a poll showing that the No campaign's lead evaporates when the Scottish public are asked how they would vote if Britain looked set to leave. But the diminishing likelihood of a Tory victory, and of an in/out referendum in 2017 (Labour has still not, and may not, promise a public vote), means it will be harder for him to warn that we're heading for Brexit. 

With just one Conservative MP in Scotland (compared to 41 for Labour), the fear of another five years under the Tory yoke, and a government wedded to permanent austerity, could help to push many towards independence. But if Labour is still comfortably ahead in the polls in September 2014, far fewer will fear what lies ahead. For this reason, a Tory recovery is perhaps the essential precondition of  a Salmond victory. 

Alex Salmond and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon present the White Paper for Scottish independance at the Science Museum Glasgow earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.