Tom Peterkin: Conference reveals No camp dilemma

Environment secretary Owen Paterson failed to appear at a Holyrood committee. Picture: Contributed.
Environment secretary Owen Paterson failed to appear at a Holyrood committee. Picture: Contributed.
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‘TOXIC TWOSOME’ at Scottish Tory conference reveals a dilemma for No camp, writes Tom Peterkin

For those Conservative ministers thinking about stepping over the Border to dip their toes into the swirling rapids of Scottish politics, there are two certainties. The first is: you are damned if you do. The second is: you are damned if you don’t.

Into the latter category falls environment secretary Owen Paterson, who this week failed to show up to a Holyrood committee.

Denied the chance to quiz Paterson on the revelation that there had been a radiation leak at a nuclear-test reactor at Dounreay, Nationalist MSP Rob Gibson described his withdrawal as another sign that “Westminster considers the respect agenda to be a thing of the past”.

In the former category can be lumped all the interventions in the independence debate made by Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne.

Whenever those inhabitants of Downing Street set out their position on independence, opponents accuse them of patronising and bullying the Scottish people. These accusations are made by Yes politicians in the knowledge that many Scots have an aversion to being “lectured” by Tories.

This aversion is also understood by the No strategists, who have to juggle Cameron and Osborne’s “toxic” status in Scotland with the right of the elected leaders of the United Kingdom to argue for the Union north of the Border.

In the main, the strategists have maintained that balancing act by limiting their excursions to Scotland. The opening of the Scottish Tory conference tomorrow, however, is one of those occasions where a turnout of Westminster ministers is mandatory. Fresh in the memory, however, is Osborne’s refusal (along with Labour’s Ed Balls and Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander) to contemplate Alex Salmond’s wish for an independent Scotland to have a formal currency union with the rest of the UK.

Predictably, this wound up the SNP. More worryingly, from the No point of view, Osborne’s high-handedness risks winding up undecided voters. Downing Street insiders, however, profess to be relaxed about this. They argue Osborne was merely setting out a stance consistent with Yes Scotland board members like Dennis Canavan and Patrick Harvie, who believe an independent Scotland should have its own currency. Their judgment is it is the message rather than the messenger that will resonate with the public.

One suspects the accuracy of that judgment is a matter for conjecture.

After all, if the identity of the messenger was irrelevant that would make a nonsense of a third great certainty of Conservative forays north – that Cameron will never give in to Salmond’s calls for a televised debate on independence.