Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why the Scottish Tory leader said it's unlikely the Conservatives will win the general election

The possibility of a Conservative victory in 2015 is one of the Yes campaign's biggest trump cards. 

During last night's inter-party Scottish independence debate, Conservative leader Ruth Davidson made an apparently remarkable statement. Asked by an audience member what would happen if there was a No vote in Scotland and then a Yes vote in an in/out EU referendum, she said she wanted the UK to remain in the EU but to secure a better deal. She added that this would become possible if the Conservatives won the general election but that this was "not likely by the polls". 

Confronted by Labour's small but stubborn advantage, many Tories privately conclude the same, but no senior figure has been as blunt as Davidson. She broke one of the iron laws of politics: never talk down your own side's chances. 

But if Davidson's candour was remarkable, it was also understandable. As I have written before, the Yes campaign has long regarded the prospect of a Tory victory in 2015 (a party that famously holds just one seat in Scotland) as one of its biggest trump cards. The poll surge that it has enjoyed since refocusing the campaign on the threat posed to the NHS by the Conservatives (despite health being an entirely devolved issue) and punitive policies such as the bedroom tax suggests it is right to do so. The defection of Labour voters to the Yes camp (from 18 per cent of 2011 supporters to 30 per cent) shows that fear of a Conservative future is outweighing fear of independence. For these reasons, it is profoundly helpful for Davidson to suggest her party is destined for defeat. 

Yet to secure the margin of victory that the No side believe is necessary to avoid a "neverendum", Scottish voters also need to be inspired by the prospect of a Labour victory, as Ed Miliband told yesterday's shadow cabinet meeting. Miliband's social democratic policy agenda - intervention in the broken markets of banking, housing and energy, greater use of the living wage, the abolition of the bedroom tax - is one that should have mass appeal. But something has been lost in translation. The key challenge for the Labour leader when he visits Scotland tomorrow is to change this. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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