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.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.