Eddie Barnes: Pro-Union camp can’t afford to dither

PERHAPS it is a start. At Prime Minister’s Questions last week, David Cameron engaged in a spot of light-hearted banter with Labour’s Brian Donohoe, the Ayrshire MP whose constituency the PM will visit later this month for the Scottish Tory conference.

Would Mr Donohoe come along to Troon to show joint support for the UK? Mr Donohoe – who bows to no Tory when it comes to the Union – accepted. Scottish Labour MP attends Tory conference? Not since Gorbachev visited Reagan at the White House have such political opposites put their enmities aside in the name of peace and goodwill.

Mr Donohoe is on record stating that, as far as he is concerned, the Union is too important to allow partisan politics to get in the way. However, where he leads later this month, the rest are proving a little harder to find. Yesterday, there were fresh reports that the cross-party, pro-Union campaign will launch soon. Dream teams, made up of Alistair Darling, Charlie Kennedy and Annabel Goldie, are being prepared, say sources. This, however, has been the line for quite a few weeks. Other figures within the pro-Union camp suggest we actually may have to wait quite a few more. Certainly, Labour is not planning to get involved in any joint campaign until after this May’s local government elections. It is true that, with a referendum anywhere up to two-and-half years away, there is no immediate rush to get on with a campaign. But this has not stopped the well-funded SNP which, as it demonstrated at the weekend, is already busy targeting what it describes as “The Persuadables” – the 20 per cent or so of voters in Scotland who, the Nats believe, are opposed to independence at present, but can be nudged in the right direction over the coming two years.

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The pro-Union camp has plenty on its side: a (current) majority of public opinion and a broad-based appeal that spans party politics. And Mr Darling, who is expected to be the key player in a cross-party campaign, will provide the kind of personal challenge to Alex Salmond he has not had in five years at Holyrood.

But the difficulties for the pro-Union camp are obvious. It requires a common voice that spans three political tribes. Furthermore, in the case of Labour and the Tories, there are also divisions over exactly what line they should be taking. The vision of “solidarity” across the UK, backed by both Ed Miliband and Mr Cameron, where everyone “from Motherwell to Maidstone” gets the same deal? Or a radical overhaul of the UK, which lets Scotland – and other parts of the country – do their own thing?

Everyone from Mr Cameron, to Mr Darling, to Mr Miliband, to Scottish Secretary Michael Moore has insisted these are all issues that can be sorted out after Scotland has decided whether or not it is going. But with the SNP already having fun over the potential for confusion, the perils of such a holding line have already been exposed. The campaign needs to get on its thinking cap – and fast.