Scottish independence: Unionist campaign can’t match Alex Salmond’s charisma, says Michael Portillo

Guy Peploe and Michael Portillo flank painting by Guy's grandfather. Picture: Jane Barlow
Guy Peploe and Michael Portillo flank painting by Guy's grandfather. Picture: Jane Barlow
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FORMER Conservative Cabinet minister Michael Portillo has said the Better Together campaign against Scottish independence has no figure with a “personality of the size” of Alex Salmond.

Mr Portillo told The Scotsman that the newly launched campaign, led by former chancellor Alistair Darling, was “in some difficulty” as he issued a stark warning to Better Together that it would not be able to match Mr Salmond’s charisma.

The former Tory defence secretary said Edinburgh Labour MP Mr Darling would have to “spend day after day” to compete with Mr Salmond’s Yes campaign in the run-up to the referendum in autumn 2014.

Mr Portillo, who is no longer a member of the Conservative Party, said the SNP leader had already “skilfully” outflanked the No campaign by presenting a third question on more powers for Holyrood as a “middle way”.

He went on to suggest that the unionist parties in Scotland were weaker because some senior Scottish Labour politicians had opted to remain as MPs rather than attempt to become MSPs.

Visiting an art gallery in Edinburgh yesterday, Mr Portillo said: “The No campaign has a lot to do. They don’t have someone with the personality of the size of Alex Salmond.

“Although I’m a great admirer of Alistair Darling and can think of no-one better to lead Better Together than him, the campaign has it all to do. Key people from the Labour Party decided to make their career in Westminster and this has led to a gap.

“Alistair is going to have to spend day after day to compete with Alex Salmond.”

He added: “There’s also the peril of a third option, which Alex Salmond is skilfully presenting as a middle way rather than being closer to the extreme of independence.”

Mr Portillo, who served in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, is now a commentator on the BBC weekly political discussion programme This Week and the series Great British Railway Journeys. He spent time with Mr Salmond in the run-up to the SNP’s landslide victory at the 2011 Holy-rood election, making a documentary about the SNP leader.

Writing in The Scotsman at the time, he said he thought Mr Salmond was “a politician to be feared”, but that he admired him “for what he’s achieved”.

However, senior Scottish Labour MSP Richard Baker, one of the directors of the Better Together campaign, angrily dismissed Mr Portillo’s intervention as he accused the former minister of lavishing praise on Mr Salmond.

Mr Baker said: “Michael Portillo is not the first Tory supporter of Alex Salmond.

“Mr Salmond relied on Tory votes to get his government’s budget through in the last parliament, so it’s no surprise that he is finding support from the political right.”

Senior SNP MSP John Wilson welcomed Mr Portillo’s intervention as he claimed that the unionist parties could not “deal with” Mr Salmond.

He said: “It’s clear that the Better Together campaign can’t match the professionalism which Alex Salmond has developed over the last seven years as a leader of a political party that has reshaped Scottish politics and is on its way to reshaping the current British state.”

Mr Portillo was in Edinburgh to view a collection of Scottish Colourist art work, including pieces amassed by his maternal grandfather – the Fife linen manufacturer John Waldegrave Blyth.