Behind the polls lead lies a growing dismay at the former Chancellor’s ‘comatose’ leadership – even from those on his own side, writes George Kerevan
I was in Number 11 Downing Street the night in September 2008 when RBS and HBOS went belly up. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, was cool as the proverbial cucumber. I wouldn’t say he was “comatose” – to quote criticism of his performance as leader of the No campaign by an anonymous member of “the Tory high command”. Rather, he was unemotional bordering on the detached. That can be useful in a crisis. Alistair is, as they say, unflappable, which is why he was one of the few frontbenchers able to put up with Gordon Brown’s tantrums.
But therein lies the problem with Alistair Darling as ostensible front man for the pro-Union Better Together campaign. Cerebral Alistair is not good at sniffing a change in the political wind. After all, he failed to notice the approaching UK financial meltdown when he was actually in charge of bank regulation. His March 2008 Budget speech makes embarrassing reading today: “…we have maintained confidence and stability in the banking system … We have turned welfare into work and borrowing into wealth creation.”
To believe the UK banking system was stable after the run on Northern Rock is taking sangfroid a bit far, even for Alistair. As for turning “borrowing into wealth creation” all we got was a gargantuan credit and housing bubble. When it finally burst (on Alistair’s watch) the result was the worst fall in living standards since the 1930s and wrecked public finances. Well done, Alistair.
This may explain why assorted senior Tories have begun a whispering campaign against Mr Darling, despite the seeming impregnable lead in the polls enjoyed by the No campaign. Why should the No camp be fearful when they are so far ahead? To understand their concerns, we need to look into the polling a little more closely. To say the least, the position of the No camp looks vulnerable.
The latest TNS BMRB monthly tracking poll of referendum voting intentions came out yesterday. (Note: sampling was done just before the publication of the SNP Government’s white paper.) Support for Yes is up on the previous month’s poll by one point, while the No tally is down one point, though the Nos lead the Yeses 42-26. The shift to Yes is within the margins of sampling error. But if we look at the run of monthly polls conducted by TNS BMRB we see the No vote is dropping consistently – by 5 points since August. In other words, Alistair Darling (dull or otherwise) is losing his core audience.
It must be stressed the defectors from the No camp are moving into the Don’t Know column. But that is hardly bad news for Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. If the Scottish citizens of the United Kingdom are growing steadily more agnostic about voting to stay in the Union, it suggests a deep underlying scepticism regarding the benefits of the current constitutional arrangement. If I were a southern Tory, I might be feeling I can’t rely on a failed Labour Chancellor to defend the Union flag.
Darling has fronted a No campaign whose strategy is remorselessly negative – dour Alistair does negativity well. Scare stories include everything from Scotland being thrown out of the EU to the BBC removing Dr Who from our television screens. There has also been outright political blackmail, including heavy hints that rUK would reject Scottish overtures for a common sterling zone.
By definition, the problem with a negative campaign is that it offers no incentives for the Don’t Knows to back the Union. Instead, it abandons the political initiative to Alex Salmond and the Yes campaign to paint a bright picture of what life could be like in an independent Scotland. With the publication of the white paper, the Yes camp has seized that initiative with both hands.
Deliberately, the white paper has switched the axis of the independence campaign from esoteric currency issues (Darling’s preferred ground) to social ones: childcare, pension age and the infamous bedroom tax. The choice is now sticking with Austerity Britain or building a new Scotland where you aren’t forced to work until you are 68 before getting a pension. The SNP believes – with some confidence – that this strategy will play better on the doorsteps of Scotland’s working-class areas than Alistair’s highbrow lectures on the currency.
Can the Yes campaign close the gap in time? One indication that they can is the alacrity with which Nicola Sturgeon has seen off two Scottish Secretaries of State in televised referendum debates. First she ran rings round mild-mannered Michael Moore, who was summarily dumped and replaced with would-be bruiser Alistair Carmichael.
In Carmichael, the No camp again went for negativity. But he was reduced to a stuttering wimp in the next debate. Sturgeon produced a report from the Child Poverty Action Group. This revealed that a further 100,000 Scottish children will be impoverished by austerity measures being introduced by the coalition. A tongue-tied Carmichael destroyed his credibility by trying to avoid responsibility for his own government’s policies.
How serious is the bid to dump Darling? Since the story broke on Wednesday in the Financial Times, Downing Street has been sending out frantic messages that it backs Darling. On the other hand, a pro-Union newspaper quotes an anonymous Cabinet minister as saying the No campaign “could be in real danger” and suggesting Gordon Brown takes over. I doubt if Brown wants the job and other suggestions, such as English Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, are frankly bonkers. Alistair will keep his job for the time being.
Meanwhile, if anyone is “comatose” in the referendum debate it is David Cameron. He last made a major speech about Scotland in February 2012. Since then, he has refused to debate Alex Salmond despite repeated invitations. Perhaps Mr Cameron fears giving the impression the No campaign is being run from the south. He needn’t worry. At the moment it doesn’t seem to be being run by anyone.