Alex Salmond could come back as an MP. Photo: Getty
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Will Alex Salmond return to Westminster? He would relish such a homecoming

The natural next step for Scotland's outgoing First Minister would be a return to Westminster.

The thought of England being “much safer” in the hands of Alex Salmond is one which will cause mirth in Scotland and terror at Westminster. Bloodied and bruised by defeat in September’s independence referendum even this most confident and pugnacious of politicians could have been forgiven for quietly departing the political scene.

Not Salmond though; not when there’s plenty of fun and games to be had at the expense of the British state. Last week he made his final speech as SNP leader and bowed out with a live grenade of an interview for Newsweek Europe in which he spoke at length about the state of UK politics. In so doing he added to the already feverish speculation that he intends to stand as a candidate in next May’s general election and further ratcheted up the post-referendum ante.

“It’s likely there is a potential route of progress through Westminster, which has not been the usual circumstance before. Who knows, there might be one or two things we can knock off for the good citizens of Liverpool and Newcastle" he said “because they badly need a champion of some sort.”

This is plainly a message about using SNP muscle to bring about greater social justice across these islands. But there’s also a context – namely the most unpredictable general election in years. The SNP – currently projected to win all but a handful of the 59 Scottish Westminster seats – know they could hold the balance of power next spring.

Salmond’s more than able successor, Nicola Sturgeon, has said she would “never, ever” enter into government with the Conservatives. But what does this mean for Ed Miliband? Labour will strongly suspect the nationalists are likely to demand a hefty price for formal coalition – perhaps nothing less than another referendum in the lifetime of the coming parliament.

The one thing that would settle the political landscape a little is if the Smith Commission was able to move at speed and broker a workable deal on further devolved powers to Edinburgh. Frankly no one is putting their mortgage on that, least of all Salmond a canny gambler and long-standing exponent of guerrilla tactics.

Those who have observed him from his earliest days – such as former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind who described Salmond as “the infant Robespierre” – know only too well his knack of making waves. Here is a politician kicked out of the SNP as a leading member of the socialist '79 Group and who as a young MP had the temerity to interrupt Nigel Lawson's 1988 Budget speech shouting that the Chancellor’s tax measures were “an obscenity”. He was suspended for this controversial intervention but much later looked back on the incident as “pretty important on a personal level in terms of reputation.”

Even in recent days he has hinted at the prospect of a Scottish UDI, saying “Scotland will take matters into our own hands,” if London does not deliver on the promises made in the final days of the independence campaign. If such comments are a warm-up for his return to the green benches, where he sat as an MP between 1987 and 2010, it will seem as though he’s never been away.

The only oddity in all of this perhaps is that Salmond would be leaving Holyrood for what is, in his eyes, a foreign institution. However, he probably thinks he's seen and done it all and should get out of Sturgeon's way. Wise enough if that is so. Should we be surprised at any of this cunning? Not in the least. For Alex Salmond has long enjoyed being the Scottish fox let loose in the English establishment hen house.

Douglas Beattie is a journalist, author of The Rivals Game, Happy Birthday Dear Celtic, and The Pocket Book of Celtic, and a Labour Councillor based in London. He grew up in Scotland

Photo: Getty
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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.