Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. Using NHS as a football will be a Tory own goal (Times)

Downing Street’s determination to drop its consensual line on health service failures could backfire with voters, says Rachel Sylvester.

2. UK benefits cap is great politics but cynical policy (Financial Times)

It is a mistake to think the limit is anything other than a symbol, writes John McDermott.

3. The coalition failed to act on my concerns about the NHS (Daily Telegraph)

Ministers' determination to pin responsibility for any problems revealed by the Keogh report on the last government is cynical politicking, says Andy Burnham.

4. Cigarette packaging: the corporate smokescreen (Guardian)

Noble sentiments about individual liberty are being used to bend democracy to the will of the tobacco industry, writes George Monbiot.

5. Britain should rise above Russian might (Financial Times)

By blocking a public inquiry into Litvinenko, the UK plays to the most cynical Putin-esque instincts, says Gideon Rachman.

6. Race is a constant in US life - as elsewhere (Independent)

The death of Trayvon Martin has proved that race is still a factor in national life – but name one country on earth which has a significant racial minority where it is not, writes Rupert Cornwell.

7. You can't nurture families as the government is uprooting them (Guardian)

A report advocating a reprise of the Sure Start vision is heart-warming but seems unreal as the coalition cuts and cuts, says Polly Toynbee.

8. We must answer the 100,000-euro question (Daily Telegraph)

Britain cannot debate leaving the EU properly without a good idea of what it would mean, writes Gisela Stuart.

9. Let’s not rest until we’ve stubbed out smoking (Times)

Having a cigarette is not a human right, says Oliver Kamm. 

10. If Samantha Cameron's 'grounded', I'm the next Tory PM (Guardian)

Fawning over the prime minister's unelected, aristocratic wife fits the pattern of a party that still doesn't take women seriously, says Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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