Salmond is set to be the power behind another leader in May. Photo: Getty.
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Sketch: The Alex Salmond procession comes to London

An adoring crowd hung on the former First Minister’s words at a book signing last night.

This piece originally appeared on our election site, May2015.com.

Alex Salmond has drank the Kool-Aid. It wasn’t clear at first. He began innocuously enough. In London last night to promote his new book (“The Dream Shall Never Die: 100 Days that Changed Scotland Forever”) at a Q&A-cum-book signing in London’s Waterstones Piccadilly, he explained his book was about three things.

We got lost following the three things, but the night wasn’t really about them, or the book. It was about Alex Salmond performing to an adulatory audience. A diplomat recently described Salmond to me as “an old back-slapping Chicago politician – nothing more”, but he was greeted as a conquering hero in Waterstones’ well-packed and unremarkably lit basement.

The reaction is understandable. Salmond is the de facto co-leader of one of the most successful political parties in Europe. The SNP won 6 Scottish seats in the 2010 general election. In 45 days they are set to win more than 50. Scotland only has 59 MPs: it is on course to become a one-party state.

The SNP’s story is remarkable. So it’s unsurprising Salmond has been snapped up.

The SNP’s story is remarkable. So it’s unsurprising Salmond has been snapped up by the high-powered literary agent Caroline Michel, who was on hand, and was treated deferentially by his interviewer Helena Kennedy, the crusading QC and Oxford college principal.

Brian Cox, the impeccably dressed Shakespearian actor turned villain from the Bourne Supremacy and Agamemnon from Troy, was seated quietly at the back. He’s a new SNP convert (“A bunch of bandits” now run Scottish Labour, he told us, referring to Jim Murphy and his team). The BBC’s Michael Cockerell, who has covered elections for forty years, was at the back to “see how he [Salmond] does it”.

Salmond is basking in the limelight. Tonight was just another stop on a 45-day procession to power. Is Ed Miliband up to being Prime Minister? We asked him. “We don’t know yet. He’s not a great opposition leader.” “Obviously if there’s an influential group of MPs influencing him…”, he continued, mischievously. Then Salmond is on hand. “If he wants government experience…”, Salmond concluded, tailing off. He is ready to be consulted if necessary.

But Salmond isn’t planning to consult, he’s planning to direct. As he told Andrew Marr this weekend, “If you hold the balance of the power, you hold the power.” By all estimations, Labour can only replace the Tories in Number Ten with SNP support. A Lab-Lib pact is set to fall short of 300 MPs, let alone the 323 needed for a working majority.

Salmond isn’t planning to consult, he’s planning to direct.

As for the nature of SNP support, any deal is looking increasingly tenuous. When we met with Angus Robertson, the SNP’s Westminster leader, last month, he told us he was spending no time thinking about a coalition with Labour. A ‘confidence and supply’ deal would be the extent of any agreement. But last night Salmond suggested any pact would be far more precarious.

“Coalition was always highly unlikely, confidence & supply is possible, but a vote-by-vote deal is probable.”

A vote-by-vote deal? Labour won’t be able to do anything unless big Alec says so. Matthew D’Ancona wrote this weekend that Salmond is he “proposing to hammer the final nail in New Labour’s coffin and rewrite Ed Balls’s first budget”. How likely is that? Kennedy asked him. “High, I think,” he replied.

The SNP’s old caution – ‘We are focused on the task ahead, we aren’t speculating on a future government’ – has been slowly eroded as the scale of their victory becomes increasingly obvious.

Labour won’t be able to do anything unless big Alec says so.

It’s understandable. Their alternative to austerity is, for many, commendable, and their ability to organise so effectively has shamed every other political party.

But self-congratulation quickly becomes tiresome. Salmond peppered his predictions with talk of how ‘Yes’ voters became “knights” in September. The analogy had something to do with Kingdom of Heaven, a widely panned Hollywood blockbuster. Then he compared the referendum to South Africa’s 1994 elections. (Presumably he’s Mandela.)

For a man so focused on “the tactics, and the art” of politics, his grand statements seemed surprisingly carefree. Then again, the SNP’s victory in May appears inevitable. Jim Murphy and his “bandits” have been running Scottish Labour for three months without any change in the polls. There is little reason to suspect much change in the next six weeks.

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Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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