Friday, 2 September 2011

Cameron's "gearchange" on independence

David Cameron has signaled that he is preparing to take Alex Salmond’s independence challenge head-on with a renewed focus on fighting the SNP.

The Prime Minister could even beat the First Minister to the draw on an independence referendum by staging a simple Yes-No ballot on the future of Scotland long before the SNP’s preferred three-question poll.

The move comes after the government’s most powerful cabinet group - "the quad" composing of Cameron chancellor George Osborne, deputy PM Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander - met this week to discuss the threat of an independence referendum for the first time.

Whitehall sources said there will now be a "gearchange" in the way the Westminster Coalition deals with the SNP and the independence question.

In a speech to business leaders in Scotland last night Lib Dem MP Danny Alexander, the Treasury number two, blasted the idea of an independent Scotland as a busted flush.

The chief secretary to the Treasury said that a separate Scotland would have a national debt would have been around £65bn, without taking into account the cost of bailing out RBS and HBOS.

He said: "Even with the most flattering account of oil revenues, there was a gap between what Scotland raised in tax and what it spent of £14bn in 2009/10. Scotland’s deficit would have been one of the largest in Europe."

These aren't new arguments but the broadside by Alexander, following on an indy-attack by Scottish Secretary Michael Moore the other day, is the opening salvo in a new campaign against the SNP’s separation plans.

Moore sat in on the quad meeting in Whitehall on Scotland and will be part of the process of gauging the appetite for a Westminster referendum on independence. There are senior Scottish Labour figures who are also open to the idea that is being floated as a runner for 2013, at least a year, possibly two, before the SNP's planned poll.

We've also seen the appointment of a dedicated Number Ten staff to dealing with Scotland as Cameron realises that the future of Scotland is to be the biggest constitutional question of his first term as Prime Minister. This will mean more Ministers will be seen in Scotland making the case for "Scotland in the UK".

Cameron has already indicated that he is ready to short-circuit the SNP’s long game by holding a snap referendum with a simple yes or no question on independence.

SNP government wants to hold a multiple choice referendum late on in the parliament, 2014 at the earliest, to allow momentum for an independence campaign to build up.

If the answer was favourable the SNP government would hold a referendum tomorrow.But SNP polling shows the party it would lose a yes-no referendum hands down so Salmond plans to fudge the question by asking Scots if they want a) independence, b)more powers or c) the status quo.

Combining the majority created by a+b is what Salmond counts on to lever the country further towards independence, whatever form that may take.

Last night the chairman of business leaders’ group CBI Scotland, Linda Urquhart, said any referendum had to deliver a clear result.

She said: "It has to be Independence "Yes" or "No" and no second questions which might produce an inconclusive result."

Urquhart warned that the legality of the referendum must also be put beyond doubt . "The constitution is a reserved matter – so the Scottish and UK Governments must work together to ensure legal certainty and a decisive result."

The same message will come from the Conservatives Murdo Fraser and from all the other pro-UK institutions in the days and weeks to come.

Finally, the sleeping lions in Whitehall have woken up to the independence debate. As the provocatively entertaining John McTernan and people like Stewart Hosie, on Radio Scotland just now, show it is going to be robust exchange.

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