DAVID Cameron is growing increasingly confident the UK government will win its battle for a single-question referendum asking the Scottish people to simply vote Yes or No to independence.
The Scotsman has learned the Prime Minister is prepared to let the SNP delay the poll until its preferred date of October 2014 in the knowledge he will win the crucial argument in favour one straightforward question.
Senior No 10 sources suggest Mr Cameron’s belief that he will outflank Alex Salmond on the framing of the ballot paper has been bolstered by the SNP’s cave-in on the Scotland Bill.
This week, the SNP withdrew its threat to oppose the UK government’s legislation to give Holyrood control of £10 billion of income tax. In what was portrayed as a major climbdown, Mr Salmond dropped his opposition, despite achieving none of his demands for the devolution of corporation tax and control over the Crown Estate, excise duties and broadcasting.
The UK government is understood to be pushing the fact the SNP manifesto outlined only an independence question and did not go into other constitutional settlements, such as devo-max or devo-plus, which would form the basis of a second question.
Downing Street is thought to be more relaxed now about the timing of the vote, with a source suggesting the Prime Minister did not know why the SNP wanted to delay it for so long, but that it was up to Mr Salmond.
In the past, the UK government, particularly Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, has argued vociferously that the vote should be held sooner rather than later in order to minimise the damage to business that would be caused by continued uncertainty.
There have been strong signs the SNP is keen to have a two-question referendum, as a Yes to devo-max would take the sting out of a No vote on independence and allow Mr Salmond to say the Nationalists had made progress towards their goal.
No 10 indicated Mr Cameron would not give in to SNP demands to lower the voting age to 16 for the referendum – a proposal that has proved controversial, given the widespread feeling that younger voters are more likely to favour independence.
The details of the cards Mr Cameron will play in the fight for the constitutional future of Scotland came to light after the Prime Minister came north of the Border to address more than 400 delegates at the Scottish Tory conference in Troon.
He said Conservatives were beginning to fight for the Union, but added: “We need to show that same fight right across the board, on all the issues that really matter to the Scottish people. The economy they work in, the jobs they do, the opportunities their children have, the society they live in. They deserve a choice on all these things, a choice that includes practical, sensible, centre-right ideas.
“And those, my friends, have got to come from us. The time for timidity is over. Enough of the hand-wringing and trying to be all things to all people. Let’s be clear about what we stand for and what we won’t put up with.”
Mr Cameron’s visit coincided with the launch of the Conservative campaign to save the Union, during which a leading Tory claimed the UK was under threat from Mr Salmond’s “vanity-driven, egotistical” drive for independence.
Leading Tories from the four nations that make up the UK launched the “Conservative Friends of the Union” campaign at Troon Concert Hall after Mr Cameron’s speech. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson was joined by Lord Trimble, representing Northern Ireland, Welsh Secretary Gillian Cheryl Gillan and, from south of the Border, Baroness Warsi, the UK party chairman. Also on the platform was Lord Strathclyde, the Conservative leader in the House of Lords, who said: “The reason why I am here is because the country that I care passionately about most of all in this world is under threat. Because of the vanity-driven egotistical policies of the SNP, Scotland stands on the brink of breaking up the most precious and successful symbol of peaceful, economic co-operation that the world has ever seen – the United Kingdom.”
However, at a fringe meeting, former Scottish Conservative leader David McLetchie clashed with former Tory presiding officer Alex Fergusson over Mr Cameron’s promise to look at strengthening the devolved settlement in the event of Scotland voting No to independence.
Mr McLetchie argued that was a “dangerous distraction” from winning the battle for the Union, while Mr Fergusson said the Scottish electorate had the right to know what would be on the table after Scotland had gone to the polls.
There was also an eyebrow-raising contribution from Lord Trimble, who argued that, by denying Scottish people their Britishness, the SNP was “doing violence to part of the identity of every Scotsman, because there is a British component to the identity of every Scotsman”.
The SNP MSP for Glasgow Humza Yousaf said: “This is exactly what David Cameron and Ruth Davidson didn’t want – their much promised positive case for the Union hasn’t even survived the Tory launch event, and now lies in tatters.”