Lesley Riddoch: Many happy returns for Salmond?

Alex Salmond is on course for a third stint at Westminster, as MP for Gordon. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Alex Salmond is on course for a third stint at Westminster, as MP for Gordon. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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The former first minister would face challenges at Westminster but it could be a gamechanger , writes Lesley Riddoch

GAME on. The worst kept secret in Scottish politics is finally out. Alex Salmond plans to return to Westminster as MP for Gordon and early bets suggest he will easily overturn the Lib Dems’ 6,748 majority. The former SNP leader already represents most of the Gordon constituency as MSP for Aberdeenshire East. Linlithgow-born Salmond is an adopted loon with 27 years as an MP and MSP in the North-East behind him. His Lib Dem rival Christine Jardine is a relatively new kid on the block facing grim opinion poll ratings. A recent YouGov poll put the SNP on 46 per cent and Labour on 26 per cent with the Lib Dems trailing at 6 per cent. She has the legacy of a 14 per cent lead but the disadvantage of not being Malcolm Bruce, the man who built it over 31 years.

Of course, there are minor problems for Salmond too. If he wins, the former first minister could be embarrassingly awash with cash from two salaries until he quits as an MSP after the 2016 Holyrood elections. But he has confirmed that if elected to Westminster, one salary and his first minister’s pension will be donated to the Mary Salmond Trust – set up in memory of his mother, to provide assistance to community organisations in the North-East – which seems fair enough. In truth, there is nothing not to like. And that could be a snag; Salmond excels as an underdog but looks set to become the big beast of Gordon with an air of presumption which will repel some as surely as it excites others.

Nonetheless, Salmond’s decision to stand for Westminster creates yet more momentum for the SNP and a massive challenge to the stale consensus at Westminster. With retirement announcements by Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling last week, it looks like the Scottish No leadership has cut and run before “substantial new powers” are wrestled from Westminster – whilst the bloodied but unbowed Salmond is preparing to soldier on. Of course hardcore Labour supporters will not see it that way at all. But a perception of constancy could help the SNP win the all-important battle over the narrative of the 2015 campaign. General elections have hitherto been perceived by some Scots as a two-horse race in which England votes (largely) Tory so Scotland must vote (largely) Labour. But the next election looks set to produce another hung parliament in which neither party alone has a working majority. That opens up the prospect of a different dynamic – a four-horse race as Ukip take seats south of the Border while the SNP is elected in large numbers north of it.

In this scenario an SNP vote doesn’t contribute to a Tory victory (Nicola Sturgeon has said she will “never, ever support a Conservative government) but could make a Labour government with SNP backing more likely. Of course a sizeable SNP bloc will try to extract full home rule for Scotland and the cancellation of Trident’s renewal – and that might be a political price too high for Ed Miliband to meet without losing even more support in Middle England.

Still, such a scenario might only reinforce the SNP’s new role as guarantor of Scottish interests at Westminster. As Salmond said on the BBC’s Sunday Politics: “The only circumstances in which people will trust Labour to deliver for Scotland is when the SNP are at their heels.”

Far more certain though, is that Salmond already resonates with the UK media. The British press has built Salmond into a powerful political phenomenon, which culminated in a Liverpool edition of Question Time during which the audience applauded Salmond’s suggestion they could “come with Scotland next time” and laughed as presenter David Dimbleby was left guessing about Salmond’s intentions for 2015.

The former first minister also bagged the 2014 Spectator’s Politician of the Year award, suggesting absence from the miserable London scene has only made right-wing hearts grow fonder of a man who boldly disrupted Nigel Lawson’s budget in 1988 and has gone on to disrupt British life.

But Salmond’s candidacy could have a more important and immediate impact, ending any chance that general election TV debates can reasonably exclude the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru. Of course, Salmond is no longer SNP leader and the controversial decision to exclude “small” parties except Ukip “fits broadcast guidelines”.

But it’s hard to see how the BBC can support a deal that places performance above fairness when Mr Box Office himself is in town using every available opportunity to raise the scandal of the SNP’s exclusion – with membership that would exceed a million in UK terms. A state broadcaster already facing accusations of referendum bias could find its credibility seriously damaged by a constant, Salmond-led chorus of “wee wuz muzzled”.

That’s also because Salmond has enjoyed renewed status since his dignified exit the day after referendum defeat. Many agree that nothing became him like the manner of his going. My hairdresser – a traditional Labour voter – was moved to tears by his resignation speech and Salmond’s emotional farewell at the SNP conference was followed by an equally affectionate BBC Scotland tribute programme. Perhaps like Sherlock Holmes – whose reappareance after a highly acclaimed TV “death” was watched by millions – Salmond is a colourful character the public just don’t want to lose.

And yet there are dangers.

Angus Robertson will remain the SNP’s official Westminster leader. How easy will that be if the media is constantly seeking out opinions from his erstwhile leader? It could be a canny move if Salmond is allowed to roam the TV studios as Charles Kennedy has done for decades, while someone else makes sure Commons business gets done.

But if the SNP wins 30 or 40 Scottish seats, as polls currently predict, and formally supports Labour, new MPs will be expected to break the habit of 30 years and vote on English matters. That could rankle. Equally, if an enlarged SNP contingent has no new role in government, party discipline could falter. Different types of candidate are bound to be selected and sent south. And whilst no independent candidate has publicly accepted the offer to stand “under the SNP banner” some “newbies” are bound to get restless if they feel Scotland’s fate is being determined elsewhere.

Will Salmond’s candidacy be a gamechanger for the SNP in 2015 – who knows? But the prospect is already the talk of the steamie.