Inside Holyrood - End of the phoney war as big guns head for front line

WITH little else to distract them this week, the SNP has been circling Glenrothes with all the impatient excitement of a small child who has been told to wait to open his Christmas presents.

You can understand the Nationalists' eagerness to get stuck in – Glasgow East gave them an air of invincibility in Scotland and they cannot wait to get their hands on this latest by-election for a seat sitting uncomfortably close to that of Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

So it was just over an hour after the body of late Glenrothes Labour MP John MacDougall was laid to rest, that the first notification of a ministerial visit was sent out.

John Swinney had decided to combine an arranged visit to Fife Council with a trip to Fife Fabrications factory in Glenrothes. And so the phoney war buzzing around Glenrothes came to a crashing end – much to Labour's disgust. "The timing of this is hugely distasteful," a Labour source thundered.

The SNP has admitted that it has been carrying out telephone canvassing over the last few months – before the seat of Glenrothes was officially vacant.

But the Nationalists said they were shocked that Labour should suggest such dark and Machiavellian motives for what it considered normal government business.

"It is deeply regrettable that any party should be trying to make political capital in these circumstances out of what are routine ministerial visits," a source close to Mr Swinney said.

However, Labour point out that the next day, Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop decided to accept an offer to attend an awards ceremony in Glenrothes, one which Labour suggested had been previously turned down. By the end of the week, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said he would be having an engagement at an industrial estate in Glenrothes – just as the local SNP selected Fife Council leader Peter Grant as its candidate.

There is nothing unusual about ministerial visits being used to help out by-elections. Both Labour and the Conservatives have done it in the past even though parties are not supposed to use public time and money to fight party political causes. But what must be making Labour nervous is that the Nationalist ministerial team have already a proven track record as an effective weapon in by-elections.

This was certainly the case in Glasgow East where every wavering voter was identified by the Nationalists and received a personal knock on the door from a minister. That was crucial in a 365-vote majority result.

The problem for Labour is that in the current difficult circumstances a visit by a UK minister, even by the seat's neighbouring MP – Mr Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister – may not have such a beneficial effect.