Why the No campaign should encourage Cameron to debate Salmond

The Prime Minister's persistent refusal to debate Salmond will become a running sore and an increasingly dominant aspect of the campaign.

As the well-worn Westminster joke goes, there are more pandas in Scotland than there are Conservative MPs. It is a truism to note that those north of the border are not naturally predisposed to the Conservative Party. Despite achieving nigh on 40% of the vote at the last general election in England, the Conservatives sank to less than 17% in Scotland, returning the lone David Mundell as the dash of blue in the otherwise crimson electoral map. This sobering electoral arithmetic no doubt informed David Cameron’s understated admission at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday that his appeal "does not stretch to all people in Scotland". It is seemingly this, and the fact that he is very much an Englishman, that is driving his near-absence from the No campaign as Scotland finally votes on its independence this September.

It is easy to see the logic behind the decision. Salmond is one of the most accomplished and gifted politicians of his generation. His mandate in Scotland is near-absolute, Cameron’s none-existent. He has crushed a once proud and omnipotent Scottish Labour party and commanded political popularity far exceeding his nearest rival for six years now. The SNP are one of the few political parties in government with a clear and retained polling lead. And even if they lose the referendum, it is unfathomable that the SNP will not be in government after the next set of Scottish elections in 2016 – surpassing Labour’s total years of governance at Holyrood.

It is always tempting to cast Salmond as the man with all the cards in his hand. Tempting, in part, because both Salmond and the media have long-fuelled the myth of Scotland’s first minister as an irresistible force leading a movement whose time, as the party’s slogan says, has come. But Alex Salmond does not make Scottish independence inevitable. Support for the SNP has never readily translated into support for independence. His political narcissism, always prevalent, is beginning to boil over. The customary cocky brinkmanship will begin to grate if the electorate sense he is overdoing the performance in what is so patently a serious moment. Behind the façade, Salmond has always understood that most Scots are sceptical about independence – hence his latest attempts to bait the Prime Minister into debating him. It is a challenge the Better Together campaign should readily take up.

Cameron’s persistent refusal to debate Salmond will become a running sore and an increasingly dominant aspect of the campaign. It will be cited at every juncture by every advocate of independence and, if the polls narrow, which they surely will, Cameron’s absence will become simply untenable. What could be more apt than the leader of Scotland, making the case for independence, and the leader of the UK, defending its continued existence, as the centrepiece of this referendum campaign? 

Salmond’s predictable sneering at Cameron’s refusal, with as many references to his Conservative, English heritage as possible, should not distract from Cameron’s achievement. Cameron was the leader who, in early 2012, finally broke out from the corner into which Salmond had long pinned the main party leaders by forcing the SNP leader to concede the date and conditions on which the referendum was set. This was, somewhat predictably, met with a howl of protest from Salmond who confidently declared Cameron’s meddling would see increased support for independence. Then, as now, the polls remain stubbornly against the SNP leader. Salmond was always content on letting the referendum date lapse ever longer into the future, hoping for the polls to change and praying for an outright Conservative victory at the 2015 general election.

For years, Salmond has been able to dictate the political debate north of the border with past and present opposition leaders who were either unable or simply unwilling to take him on at his own game. The emerging candidate to do just that is the Prime Minister, David Cameron, even if he does not yet realise it himself. He is clearly a competent performer on television and to commit to a debate would, at a stroke, deny Salmond a key line of attack. As long as Cameron is humble, not regal, and clear in his intentions that this is about his determination to secure the Union and not for electoral prospects, for he has none, then the Prime Minister has the ability to rise above Salmond’s desperate attempt to frame the vote as that of Scotland versus the Tories. Scottish voters will see the difference, and with it may well grant a rare victory for long-held foe.

Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond with David Cameron at the men's Wimbledon final last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Talbot is a political consultant

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Where are the moderate Tories condemning Zac Goldsmith’s campaign?

Conservative MPs are reluctant to criticise the London mayoral candidate’s dogwhistle rhetoric.

Very few Conservative politicians have criticised Zac Goldsmith’s campaign to be elected London mayor. And, amid repeated accusations of racial profiling, Islamophobic undertones, and patronising London’s Indian communities, there has been plenty to criticise.

Ever since describing his rival, Sadiq Khan, as having “radical politics” at the end of last year, Goldsmith’s campaign has come under fire for attempting to sound a dogwhistle to voters for whom racial politics – and divisions – are a priority.

You may feel it’s naïve of me to expect Tory MPs to join in the criticism. Presumably most Tory MPs want their party’s candidate to win the mayoralty. So it is unlikely that they would condemn his methods.

But I’d argue that, in this case, we can’t excuse dodged questions and studied silence as good clean tribalism. Granted, Conservatives only want to see their party make electoral gains. And that is understandable. But trickier to explain away is how willing all of the party’s MPs – many of whom are as moderate and “cotton-wool Tory” (in the words of one Labour adviser) as we once assumed Goldsmith was – are to ignore the campaign’s nastier side.

Why aren’t the Cameroons (or neo-Cameroons) who wish to further “detoxify” the party speaking out? There are plenty of them. There is more enthusiasm on the Tory benches for David Cameron than is generally assumed. Many of the 2015 intake are grateful to him; those in marginal seats in particular see him as the reason they won last year. And in spite of the grumbling nature of the 2010-ers, a number of them are keener than appears on Cameron. After all, plenty wouldn’t be in parliament without his A-list and open primaries (a time when the party was supposed to be opening up to candidates of different backgrounds, something Goldsmith’s rhetoric could threaten).

And we know it’s not just Labour whining about Goldsmith’s campaign. It makes Tories uncomfortable too. For example, the Conservative Group Leader at Watford Council Binita Mehta, former Conservative candidate Shazia Awan, and Tory peer and former minister Sayeeda Warsi have spoken out.

And it’s not just non-MPs who are riled by Goldsmith’s rhetoric. Behind the scenes, Conservative MPs have been muttering for weeks about feeling uncomfortable about the campaign.

“There has been a sense that this is a bad dogwhistle, and it’s a bit of a smear,” one Tory MP tells me. “I don’t think Sadiq Khan’s a bad man at all – I think his problem is, which happens to all politicians, is some of the platforms in the past and the people he shared them with, and maybe he didn’t know – I mean, the number of times David Cameron or Gordon Brown or Tony Blair were shown at some fundraising thing, or just visiting somewhere, shaking hands with somebody who turns out to be a crook; that’s the nature of mass politics.”

There is also a mixed view among London’s Tory MPs about the tone of Goldsmith’s campaign generally. Some, who were frustrated in the beginning by his “laidback, slightly disengaged” style, are simply pleased that he finally decided to play dirty with the more energetic Khan. Others saw his initial lighter touch as an asset, and lament that he is trying to emulate Boris Johnson by being outrageous – but, unlike the current London mayor, doesn’t have the personality to get away with it.

One Tory MP describes it as a “cold, Lynton Crosby calculation of the dogwhistle variety”, and reveals that, a couple of weeks ago, there was a sense among some that it was “too much” and had “gone too far and is counterproductive”.

But this sense has apparently dissipated. Since Labour’s antisemitism crisis unfolded last week, moderate Conservative MPs feel more comfortable keeping their mouths shut about Goldsmith’s campaign. This is because racism in Labour has been exposed, even if Khan is not involved. Ironic really, considering they were (rightly) so quick to condemn Ken Livingstone’s comments and call on Jeremy Corbyn and Labour MPs to speak out against such sentiments. It’s worth noting that Labour’s moderates have been significantly less reluctant than their Tory counterparts to call out such problems in their own party.

There is also the EU referendum to consider. Tory MPs see division and infighting ahead, and don’t want to war more than is necessary. One source close to a Tory MP tells me: “[Goldsmith’s campaign] is uncomfortable for all of us – it’s not even considered a Conservative campaign, it’s considered a Zac Goldsmith campaign. But [we can’t complain because] we have to concentrate on Europe.”

So it makes sense politically, in the short term, for Tory moderates to keep quiet. But I expect they know that they have shirked a moral duty to call out such nasty campaign methods. Their calls for Labour’s response to antisemitism, and David Cameron’s outrage about Jeremy Corbyn’s “friends” in Hamas and Hezbollah, are simply hollow attack lines if they can’t hold their own party to higher standards.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.