Blair aide sent to stem SNP tide

SENIOR Downing Street aide John McTernan has been sent to Scotland in the first stage of a major campaign by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to counter the Nationalist threat in May's elections.

The Prime Minister and the Chancellor, who is expected to succeed him in No 10 later this year, authorised the switch of emphasis as the SNP continue to rise in the opinion polls.

Final details of the bid to rescue Labour's faltering attempts to hang on to power came at a key meeting in Downing Street between the two, also attended by Holyrood First Minister Jack McConnell and Scottish Secretary Douglas Alexander.

They are increasingly worried at the opinion polls which suggest Alex Salmond and his party could be on course to win power in the Edinburgh parliament for the first time since devolution. They have already dispatched Mr McTernan, Mr Blair's political secretary, in No. 10 north of the Border to beef up Labour's campaign.

Mr McTernan was head of strategy for Henry McLeish when he was First Minister. But Mr McConnell only kept him on for a month after he took over the Government in November 2001.

Mr McTernan then spent the next three years out of government before being appointed a Downing Street adviser in 2004.

He will now be followed to Scotland by a team of party staff and organisers working in key Scottish seats where Labour's candidates are considered to be most at risk.

With Mr Blair now committed to leaving office this year and Mr Brown certain to succeed him, doubts about sending the Prime Minister to campaign have been set aside.

Labour strategists believe that his campaigning skills will now more than offset opponents' attempts to capitalise on his legacy of the Iraq war, cash for honours and alleged corruption. And they believe that putting the current Prime Minister and the next one together will give a major boost to the campaign.

The blitz by Labour's two heaviest hitters will be portrayed by opponents as panic in the face of SNP progress and London taking charge of the Scottish Labour Party.

But today, Mr Alexander said that he expected the Scottish voters in the run-up to May will make the same decision they did in the UK General Election that the economic, cultural and family links between England and Scotland were too great to put the Union at risk.

Tonight, he will celebrate the 300th anniversary of the 1707 Treaty of Union by launching the Royal Mint's commemorative 2 coin at Dover House, the Scottish Office's Whitehall premises.

Mr Brown is not attending as he heads off on a trade mission to India - a move which has come under fire from the SNP.

A senior source who attended the Downing Street summit said: "The PM and Gordon are committed now to giving as much campaigning time in Scotland as the party there wants to schedule. They will, separately or together, visit key seats, giving interviews and talking to key opinion formers in support of Jack and his team."

Mr Brown claimed in a weekend newspaper article that the union between England and Scotland was under threat from a "dangerous drift" towards separatism.

SNP hopes, meanwhile, have been slightly dented by a Newsnight poll showing support for independence falling. The poll, being broadcast tonight, found just 32 per cent in favour of separation with 56 per cent backing the Union.

The SNP today launched a new poster to mark the 300th anniversary of the old Scots Parliament voting for the Union, reading: "1707 - No right to choose; 2007 - The right to choose".

Nationalist leader Alex Salmond said: "Three centuries ago, an incorporating Union was foisted on Scotland by bribery and intimidation. The people were against it, but they had no right to choose.

"The nobles who put their signatures to the Treaty of Union were forced to flee from the crowds into an Edinburgh cellar.

"In 2007, the SNP are offering people the opportunity to choose progress for Scotland. The SNP trust the people to make the right decision on Scotland's future. That is why we offer the right to choose independence in a referendum held in the four-year term of an SNP government."