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

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.