How David Cameron must long for the simple days when his greatest fear was losing the general election. When the Prime Minister addressed the Conservative parliamentary party on 2 September, for the first time since the defection of Douglas Carswell to Ukip, he was confident that his country, at least, would not break up. Asked whether he now believed that “devo max” should have featured as an option on the Scottish referendum ballot paper, Cameron blithely assured his MPs that the No campaign was still on course for victory. “He seemed very complacent. The gap had already narrowed to 6 points by then,” one of those present tells me.
Seven days later, Cameron announced he was to miss PMQs to make an emergency visit to Scotland, and the Saltire was raised above Downing Street. Never has the usually banal observation that “a week is a long time in politics” been more appropriate.
If there is any consolation for the Prime Minister it is that he was not alone in assuming a stable conclusion to the referendum race. Until the publication of the YouGov poll on 6 September, which put the Yes side ahead for the first time, most in Westminster believed that the foremost question was not whether the Unionists would win, but rather how great their margin of victory would be. The promised “game-changing” moments – the publication of the independence white paper, the Commonwealth Games, Alex Salmond’s first debate against Alistair Darling – had been and gone, and the game had not changed.
When it did, Westminster was caught defenceless. The No campaign had relentlessly demanded to hear Salmond’s “plan B” but lacked one itself. In the succeeding days there has been a desperate attempt to scramble together an army of resistance capable of beating back the nationalist insurgency. Gordon Brown, the man whom Cameron evicted from Downing Street in 2010, has been anointed supreme commander: a redoubtable Churchill to Cameron’s hapless Chamberlain. When No 10 announced that the Prime Minister “very much welcomed” Brown’s devolution timetable, it was as if his predecessor had been reinstated.
Whether Cameron would survive as PM following a Yes vote is now the subject of constant discussion among MPs. “He would be in maximum danger,” a senior Tory says. The referendum agreement he signed with Salmond in October 2012, praised at the time, has not aged well. Conservative MPs point to the timing of the vote, the wording of the question, and the decision to enfranchise 16-to-17-year-olds as careless errors. If Cameron’s resignation is demanded, this will be the case for the prosecution. But most suggest that the cause of stability, amid an unparalleled constitutional crisis, would demand he remain in place. Others, determined to prevent the question even arising, lament their futility. “As a woman with a southern English accent, I’ve been told to keep quiet,” one Tory MP tells me.
If the prospect of Scotland seceding has created general panic across Westminster, it is greatest among Labour. Shadow cabinet ministers use four-letter Anglo-Saxonisms to describe their party’s reaction. While the loss of Scotland would cost the Tories a single MP (the same number as Carswell’s defection), it would cost Labour 40. The electoral consequences of independence should not be exaggerated; on only two occasions since 1945 would the identity of the winning party have changed (in 1964 and February 1974, both Labour victories). But in advance of what strategists have long acknowledged will be a “close” election, Ed Miliband cannot afford to lose 16 per cent of his parliamentary party.
There is also an awareness that Scotland’s departure would shift Labour’s centre of gravity to the right, although some can see the benefits. “It would hugely aid the cause of reform, as we’d have to appeal to southern England,” a Blairite tells me.
If the Union is lost, Tory MPs will move swiftly to frame Labour as the culprit. It was the party’s “loathsomely shit” performance in the 2011 election for the Scottish Parliament (in the words of a shadow cabinet minister) that allowed the SNP to win a majority, and its lacklustre standing since then has put the SNP within reach of its ultimate goal. Calls for Cameron to resign will be matched by calls for Miliband to do so. But Labour MPs believe the blame will fall elsewhere. “This will be Alistair [Darling] and Douglas [Alexander]’s defeat,” one says, in reference to the Better Together chair and the party’s general election co-ordinator, who is being heavily briefed against.
When not war-gaming the consequences of a Yes vote for their parties, MPs consider the constitutional bombs that would rain down: should the general election be delayed? (Most say no.) Should Scottish MPs be barred from voting on English laws? (Most say yes.) Would the UK lose its UN Security Council seat? That many are pondering these questions for the first time is proof of how few anticipated this moment.
But whether out of wishful thinking or not, most still expect a reprieve. The common hope is that a phalanx of “shy Nos” will carry the unionists to victory, as they did John Major in 1992 and the Canadian federalists in 1995. “When I meet voters on the doorstep they look left and they look right to see if their neighbours are listening, and then they whisper that they’re voting No,” a Labour MSP says.
Yet even if the Union endures, it feels as if the last vestiges of Westminster’s authority have been washed away. The desperation with which the political class has had to fight to maintain the 307-year-old Union will make any victory seem profoundly pyrrhic. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg may be in office, but they have never seemed less in power.