During last night’s inter-party Scottish independence debate, Conservative leader Ruth Davidson made an apparently remarkable statement. Asked by an audience member what would happen if there was a No vote in Scotland and then a Yes vote in an in/out EU referendum, she said she wanted the UK to remain in the EU but to secure a better deal. She added that this would become possible if the Conservatives won the general election but that this was “not likely by the polls”.
Confronted by Labour’s small but stubborn advantage, many Tories privately conclude the same, but no senior figure has been as blunt as Davidson. She broke one of the iron laws of politics: never talk down your own side’s chances.
But if Davidson’s candour was remarkable, it was also understandable. As I have written before, the Yes campaign has long regarded the prospect of a Tory victory in 2015 (a party that famously holds just one seat in Scotland) as one of its biggest trump cards. The poll surge that it has enjoyed since refocusing the campaign on the threat posed to the NHS by the Conservatives (despite health being an entirely devolved issue) and punitive policies such as the bedroom tax suggests it is right to do so. The defection of Labour voters to the Yes camp (from 18 per cent of 2011 supporters to 30 per cent) shows that fear of a Conservative future is outweighing fear of independence. For these reasons, it is profoundly helpful for Davidson to suggest her party is destined for defeat.
Yet to secure the margin of victory that the No side believe is necessary to avoid a “neverendum”, Scottish voters also need to be inspired by the prospect of a Labour victory, as Ed Miliband told yesterday’s shadow cabinet meeting. Miliband’s social democratic policy agenda – intervention in the broken markets of banking, housing and energy, greater use of the living wage, the abolition of the bedroom tax – is one that should have mass appeal. But something has been lost in translation. The key challenge for the Labour leader when he visits Scotland tomorrow is to change this.