Amid Labour’s woes and looming no-deal Brexit, Tories must unite – John McLellan

Richard Leonard. Picture: John Devlin
Richard Leonard. Picture: John Devlin
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Many Scottish Tories now accept that arguments about opposing a no-deal Brexit are counter-productive, writes John McLellan.

In the pre-social media, multi-channel TV and live-streaming era, when popular newspapers dominated the communications landscape, to know what the Scottish Labour Party was up to only took a glance at that day’s Daily Record. It was Scottish Labour’s daily in-house journal, and throughout his time as Chancellor and then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown could rely on its unstinting support. Indeed, his calls to the editor could cause a lot more alarm than those of the managing director.

The Record remains very well connected on the Left and after shadow Chancellor John McDonnell abandoned the party’s opposition to a second independence referendum this week, the paper’s political editor, David Clegg, produced a withering analysis which concluded that Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard had more chance of becoming the next Archbishop of Canterbury than First Minister.

If Mr Clegg had written that about Gordon Brown in 1996, he’d have been clearing his desk by the end of the day and so would the editor. How times have changed. The irony of Mr Clegg’s conclusion that Mr Leonard “has made zero impression in his almost two years in charge” is that Mr McDonnell’s shredding of the independence referendum policy has done more to raise the Scottish leader’s profile than any other event, but obviously, not in ways he would have wished.

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That Mr McDonnell did so in an Edinburgh Fringe chat show rather than a major speech only added to the ignominy, and to make sure the message was received loud and clear he stuck to his guns the next day in a tacit confirmation the national leadership has given up on the Scottish party and is moving towards an electoral pact with the SNP, whose price is ceding the power to hold a second referendum to the Scottish Parliament.

“Now even Labour’s shadow Chancellor is wilfully ignoring Scottish Labour’s position on the independence issue,” observed Mr Clegg. “When your own colleagues think you’re an irrelevance, it’s probably time to give it up.” And when the political editor of a traditionally Labour-supporting Scottish paper writes that about Scottish Labour’s leader, the game really is over. The extraordinary open civil war Mr McDonnell has sparked suggests it’s not just over for Richard Leonard, but the Scottish party.

In the event of a second indyref, it also means the chances of another cross-party, anti-independence movement are virtually zero, but judging by the lacklustre Labour-run Better Together campaign, which ultimately led to last-minute panic, that’s something for which Unionists should be grateful.

Labour’s understanding in 2012-14 was they would run the campaign while the Conservative Party provided the resources, so most of the cash came from Conservative-supporting donors and polling was from Populus, run by David Cameron’s friend Andrew Cooper. The Labour-dominated campaign team controlled the creative applications and messaging and resisted meaningful involvement from those deemed outsiders. The Conservative Party seriously overestimated Scottish Labour’s ability to connect with what was regarded as its core vote and underestimated the extent to which key voters in traditional Labour areas were amenable to political messaging from others. It was then a mistake to think the 55-45 result was a great triumph when the gap should have been far wider, and this in turn bred complacency in the Cameron-led Remain campaign that Labour could deliver in its backyard.

There is a long way to go before Indyref2 becomes reality; can a Labour-SNP alliance first of all win a vote of no confidence in the UK Government, could Labour win enough seats in a subsequent General Election, could it form a government? And even then, will the SNP actually risk a referendum when the recent Lord Ashcroft poll puts support for independence at 46 per cent? Only when the crucial “don’t knows” were excluded did the number go up to 52, still a long way short of the 20-point advantage most experts say is needed before a narrow victory is guaranteed.

And all of that is without knowing exactly when an election will be held and under what circumstances. Since last week, the clever money has moved towards an election in early November immediately following a no-deal Brexit on 31 October, if Mr Johnson uses the the Fixed Term Parliaments Act to wait 14 days to after a no-confidence vote to call an election with Hallowe’en falling in the middle of the campaign. The Economist magazine even suggested an “Independence Day” poll on 1 November.

At a Royal Bank of Scotland media dinner on Monday, chief executive Ross McEwan told journalists he believed Brexit would slow the economy, but even after no-deal ”in the end things will work out”. He also confirmed that under independence, the official HQ would move to London because, with assets of £730 billion, it’s too big for Scotland to rescue if there is another catastrophe. That should remind any wavering Scottish Conservatives to keep focused on bread-and-butter issues and opposing another referendum. Many on the Scottish Conservative side, including ex-Scotland Secretary David Mundell, accept that arguments about separating the party and opposing a no-deal Brexit are counter-productive. There will no doubt be more twists over the next weeks but, as what’s left of Scottish Labour tears itself to bits, the best option for Scottish Conservatives is a united front led by both Ruth Davidson and Boris Johnson after 31 October.

In memory of gentle, kind Jonny

As an opposition councillor trying to take the local administration to task and for all the talk of political crisis, sometimes none of it matters and Thursday morning was just such a time.

It was one of those beautiful, sunny days when Morningside was at its best, and if you live in Edinburgh you don’t want to live anywhere else. But we were gathered for an occasion of unquenchable sorrow, the burial in Morningside Cemetery of a friend’s son who had succumbed to mental illness aged just 28.

Some years ago, a much-admired colleague lost his struggle in similar circumstances and I will never forget the remarkable words in his brother’s funeral eulogy; that no matter how much pain mourners were feeling, his must have been much, much worse, because the man we all knew would not have wanted to be the cause of such suffering for people he loved if he could have at all avoided it. The comfort was in knowing he was no longer suffering himself.

Those words came flooding back as gentle, kind Jonny Davidson was laid to rest, and for all the wracking rawness of his family’s grief I will never forget their dignity and their bravery.