Salmond's audacious leap

The First Minister may hold power by a whisker, but he acts like a man with a landslide. Now it's ti

If you can't indulge yourself on honeymoon, when can you? And in that other political honeymoon, 400 miles north of Downing Street and even further from the Dorset beach, Alex Salmond is not holding back. On 24 August he marks his first 100 days with a precarious hold on office, yet much of his behaviour has been that of a man who has won a landslide and the Lottery at the same time.

The 100-day programme he published before the election has been rolled out, with big spending commitments and claims for more power and cash from Westminster. These have drawn little response from Gordon Brown, who has so far only politely acknowledged that he has to do business with his backyard adversary.

Next we will see Salmond at his most audacious, indulging himself with a white paper, a draft bill and a referendum plan that could mark the beginning of the end for the United Kingdom and the birth of a new independent Scottish state.

That will be the spin. The reality is different. But as Brown is also proving, perception is vital in setting the tone early. And both men are finding it helps to have an opposition in disarray.

With only one vote separating the Scottish National Party from Labour, the Salmond government ought to look weak, but the First Minister has made a sure-footed start. He has control of the administrative machine and he's not afraid to use it. He wields the dominant power to propose legislation, and winter's budget process is stacked in his finance minister's favour.

On the independence question, Salmond can count on 50 of 129 MSPs to support his referendum plan; 47 of those belong to the SNP. A clear majority of MSPs, including 46 Labour, are implacably opposed. His response is to borrow from US presidents who struggle to get anything past a hostile Congress: he will appeal to the people over the legislators' heads. Let's have a calm, rational, national debate about our future, he will say. The unionist parties are trying to stop Scottish people having their say. What could be more democratic than letting the people decide?

If others want to put in a further question about more devolved powers for the Holyrood parliament (an idea with which Tories and Lib Dems are flirting), he is happy to discuss it. This is not the Smart Alex of old, for he has changed his tone. This is New Eck; restrained, reasonable, reaching out. Either of the smaller parties would give Salmond the majority he needs for a referendum, just.

But he can't afford to be too successful too soon. If the Holyrood opposition suddenly gave him his referendum, or if Gordon Brown called his bluff with a referendum on Westminster terms, the result would be far from foregone.

Polling ahead of the election gave conflicting evidence, depending on the question. Should Scotland be free and independent? On balance, yes. Do you want to break up Britain? Not really. The referendum could not force Westminster to pass an Act of Disunion. And, as Salmond has acknowledged, a "No" vote shoots the Nationalist fox for a generation. He needs time to make sure he gets the result he wants.

For these reasons a referendum remains unlikely this side of the 2011 election. But this new Scottish politics is feeling its way. While the SNP and Labour indulge tribal hostility toward each other (oddly meaning that both prefer to cosy up to the Tories), the arithmetic for a majority depends on tight party discipline and the backing of at least three groups.

Before MSPs departed for the summer the SNP had proved canny at patching together majorities. There was ducking, diving, semantics and a reminder that the Executive can ignore votes in the parliament unless they are on legislation or confidence - although in practice they lost on only one vote (on £600m of Edinburgh trams, which Labour wants but the SNP does not).

Where is Labour in all this? Largely silent, on holiday, licking its wounds, in denial, rerunning failed election arguments, hoping Salmond will trip up and, above all, waiting for leadership. The former first minister Jack McConnell is expected to quit around the time Labour MSPs meet in Dunkeld on 20 August. He has let it be known that a place in the Lords would help him make way for a new leader.

Most money is on Downing Street's tip for the job, Wendy Alexander. The sister of Douglas, Secretary of State for International Development, she is a bundle of energy reputed to have a planet-sized brain, but one that coincides erratically with Earth's orbit. Even her supporters wonder if she has the people skills to learn the art of opposition for Labour. But with Salmond pitching a big tent in the centre ground and Labour retrenching into its Clydeside heartlands, the first question she will have to answer is: what is the Scottish Labour Party for?

Douglas Fraser is Scottish political editor of the Herald

Martin Bright is away. Inside Track returns at the end of the month