If the Tories are worried about Scotland voting for independence, they shouldn't be

All of the polls continue to show a large double-digit lead for the No side. There is no reason to believe opinion will shift dramatically in the next nine months.

According to today's Sunday Times, senior Tories are increasingly fearful that Scotland will vote for independence next year. Lynton Crosby is said to believe that "Salmond will pull it off", while former Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth declares: "It’s time England woke up and that we, as partners in the United Kingdom, work out how we’re going to move forward and ensure that a reckless decision to break up the United Kingdom is not made in September."

Their views reflect those of many commentators, who are now describing the result as "too close to call". But while a tight race would undoubtedly be more exciting (the primary concern of most newspapermen), the suggestion that the Union is in peril is unsupported by the best guide we have to how people will vote (which is not Lynton Crosby's hunches): the polls.

Before the publication of the White Paper on independence, I heard plenty of nationalists suggest that the event would be a "gamechanger" for the Yes campaign. But every poll published since has shown the No side ahead by between 14 and 29 points, with no significant increase in support for separation. The Union side, as it has done the last two years, retains a healthy double-digit lead. While some of the pollsters might be wrong some of the time, all of the pollsters can't be wrong all of the time. So why the anxiety?

Those who believe that the Scots are likely to vote for independence typically point to the large number of undecided voters, with around a quarter yet to say how they will vote. But if the Yes side is to take the lead, they'll need to win over almost all of this group. Indeed, according to the most recent YouGov poll, which put the No side ahead by 52-33, even winning over 100 per cent would still leave the nationalists four points behind. Why assume that the Yes campaign will prove so successful at converting them?

Others, pointing to the SNP's remarkable victory in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election, remind us that Salmond is a "great finisher" who specialises in defying the odds. The man himself told NS editor Jason Cowley 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." But in the form of the SNP's 2007 victory, there was at least something close to a precedent for this. By contrast, there has never been a consistent majority for independence and the uncertainty created by the financial crisis and its aftermath has made voters even more reluctant to take a leap into the dark.

There have been polls showing that Scots would vote for independence if they believed it would make them better off, but the problem for Salmond is that they don't. Asked earlier this month by YouGov, "Do you think Scotland would be economically better or worse off if it became an independent country, or would it make no difference?" (the defining issue of the campaign), just 26 per cent said "better off" and 48 per cent said "worse off". If Salmond couldn't persuade voters that Scotland would be better off alone when the UK was in an austerity-induced double-dip recession, he's not going to be able to persuade them now.

The sceptics on the Union side finally point out that referendums are uncertain beasts. But while true, this ignores the tendency for support for the status quo to increase as voting day approaches (recall the 1975 EU referendum and that on the Alternative Vote in 2011, as well as the Quebec plebiscite). Faced with the real possibility of secession, I expect a significant minority of Yes supporters to pull back from the brink.

When I put all of these points to nationalists, I'm told that studying the polls is no substitute for gauging "feeling on the ground". But this is merely the age-old cry of the losing side; Romney supporters said much the same in 2012. When Nate Silver, who has rightly argued that the Yes campaign has "virtually no chance" of victory, pointed out that almost all of the polls suggested a comfortable win for Obama, he was dismissed by conservative pundits who insisted (typically on the basis of little more than their personal hunches) that the race was "too close to call". They were left looking rather foolish after 6 November 2012, and so will those now suggesting that Scotland is about to go it alone.

Alex Salmond presents the White Paper for Scottish independance at the Science Museum Glasgow on November 26, 2013 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage