Wednesday 21 September 2011

Magic darts put Rennie ahead of "Fingers"

The results of the electronic darts competition are in.

Firing a digital dart at a tv screen on an exhibitor stands at the Lid Dem conference is not as easy as it looks, and is in no way indicative of a wasted youth.

After all Nick Clegg scored a lowly 70 but in the Scottish stakes Willie Rennie displayed his leadership qualities with a winning score of 105 from a three dart throw.

Smooth Menzies Campbell, dark horse Alan Reid and Alistair Carmichael shared equal second place with throws of 100 each. Carmichael tried burnishing his thuggish credentials by muttering something about breaking his opponents' fingers before the next round. As Lib Dem chief whip that is something I suppose he's entitled to do.

Wait a minute, I'm hearing unconfirmed reports that Willie Rennie's score was only 100 yesterday and that he must have had a second go. Or is that the Lib Dem equivalent of magic darts? Either way, all eyes will be on the Scottish Labour leadership candidates to see how they score in Liverpool next week.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Rennie flexs New Home Rule muscles

We've seen signs of life, if not revival, in the Scottish Lib Dems at Birmingham this week, it has to be said.

The leadership has looked in the mirror and decided it was time to hit the gym. As a result we're seeing a more muscular response from the Lib Dems to the challenge of taking on Alex Salmond and the prospect of a referendum.

Scottish leader Willie Rennie is, in contrast to Cable, very chirpy about the future and getting stuck into the independence debate. Even Michael Moore is moving from quiet man to big man but I feel they’re both to a bit too decent for the short sword fighting that the SNP leader prefers to conduct politics.

I’m not convinced that Rennie’s opening gambit - a commission on New Home Rule, reclaiming devolution max for the Lib Dems - is the kind of chest expanding move that will cause the SNP to lose much sleep though.

Willie Rennie disagrees he says its not just about recapturing fiscal federalism and devolution from the SNP it is about power redistribution to local communities too.

“We can see the SNP wanting to pull power into Edinburgh, we want to go the other way,” Rennie tells me in an appeal to localism.

“In 1998 the biggest fear was that the Scottish parliament would be Strathclyde writ large and that rural Scotland would not be able to shape its own future. Who would have thought the SNP would be delivering Strathclyde writ large.”

Why indulge in navel gazing when the big issue is a referendum, I ask? Salmond offers a vision and the Lib Dems offer us a committee of grandees.You'd have to be an expert on the American Civil War to work out federalism and co-federalism, which is the kind of constitutional wrestle the Lib Dems want to get involved in.

That provokes a wee bit of passion from Rennie. "There is a debate to come on Scotland's future and people need to know what shape the country could take."

He adds: "Salmond is pretending he’s in favour of more powers for the parliament but that is just a stepping stone to independence for him. We believe in Home Rule as the final resting point."

It's not a bad line but it needs a bit more weight training before it can be deployed against Eck.

Cable sets the weather dial to gloomy

If you've never been measured for a coffin while standing up you've never really listened to a Vince Cable speech.

The prophet of doom did his best here in Birmingham to outdo Alistair Darling as the gloomiest man in politics with his predictions that we are all doomed.

Opinion polling suggests that what Vince says is true for the Lib Dems at least. The news this morning that credit rating agency Standards and Poor has downgraded Italy for the second time in four months shows that his grey skies analogy might hold true for the rest of us too.

Cable's dramatic confession that we can expect very little in the way of economic growth sends a shudder through the collective spine and sets the tone for the rest of the conference season and, one suspects, the rest of this parliament.

It has been a bit of a heads down, lacklustre and unenticing affair, the Lib Dem conference. The conflicting platform messages of rowing away from the coalition while emphasising the need to stick to government and the deficit reduction plan just don't add up to a clear narrative.

Simon Hughes and Tim Farron and Evan Harris are causing licensed trouble for the leadership but you don't detect any great rebellion on the conference floor.
The Lib Dems are conflicted, as relationship counsellors would say, and it's beginning to show.

Concreted Birmingham has matched the weather and my mood. I'm trying to like the city but can't find any greenery. There are trees in the far distance, but these sunny uplands seem a long way away.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Alistair Darling...behind every great man

Whizzing through the Alistair Darling book this morning digging for any gems that haven't been excavated in the serialisation and the leaks of the memoir to Labour Uncut.

I'm not struck by anything major so far but the concern I raised about the Sunday Times reducing its serialisation fees seems to have been borne out, according to Nick Watt of the Guardian.

Reading these books as journalists do, via the index, I'm struck by the very generous references Darling makes to Catherine MacLeod, our former Herald colleague, who joined him as media adviser when he became Chancellor.

At every twist in the tale Catherine is there offering the straight-talking advice and wisdom that are her trademark. For example, when it came to the release of the Lockerbie bomber Catherine told Downing Street that Prime Ministerial silence just wouldn't wash. Brown's advisers slapped her down, insisting it was a Scottish story. Catherine said they were wrong (and they were), it was a story that would reverberate around the world.

Darling also confirms in the book that it was Catherine, and his wife Maggie Vaughan (another former Herald journalist), who gave him the willpower to resist Brown when the Prime Minister tried to sack his chancellor in 2009.

I suspected as much at the time and in the aftermath phoned Catherine to ask if it was indeed the Vaughan-MacLeod axis that had seen the Brownites off.

I got a typical MacLeod reply - short and sweet. Catherine quipped back: "Aye it was us, and no Balls between us."

Behind every great man, as they say...

Monday 5 September 2011

Murdo Fraser shot at the Scots Tory startline

I love the Daily Record editorial this morning (I didn't write it) on the Scottish Tory makeover that Murdo Fraser is proposing.

"To most of us Cif is still Jif, a Snickers is a Marathon, Katie Price is Jordon and the Tories will always be the Tories."

Given the reaction to Fraser's audacious plan it looks like the frontrunner may have shot himself in both feet at the startline.

Just as he was about to launch his candidacy Jack Harvie, the main funder of the Scottish Tories, said he'd go on strike if Fraser won and binned the Tory party.

Fraser says he can find other financiers but suddenly Ruth Davidson, who put in an excellent performance on the Today programme this morning, looks like a good bet.

Whether Fraser's overstated reforms get going is a matter for the Scottish Tories alone, Conservative Central Office says it is staying well clear. But it is hard to see, from this end of the telescope, how a Conservative Prime Minister fighting to save the United Kingdom could go campaigning in Scotland for a party he would no longer be a member of.

With the Independence option inching ahead in the Herald opinion poll today - 39% for to 38% against - Alex Salmond can only be laughing as his opponents split themselves asunder.

Labour shouldn't mock the Tories too loudly given that their own Scottish party might have to go through the same devolutionary transformation in the next month and detach itself from the main UK party. Anyway, Labour prays at night for a Scottish Tory revival to take some votes and some seats away from the mighty SNP.

Right now the SNP is cruising - no date names no questions unveiled - while the other parties try to get their arguments in a row.

The mischievous George Foulkes is making a play tomorrow in the Lords to "seize the initiative" and force referendum on Scottish independence by 2013.

Lord Foulkes, a former Scotland Office Minister and former MSP, is tabling a series of amendments to the Scotland Bill, one of which will require the Coalition to hold a referendum within two years of the legislation being enacted.

Foulkes explains his bold plan thus: "Salmond has been getting away with far too much and should not be making the running. We can do that by exercising our constitutional right."

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.

Thursday 1 September 2011

Darling memoirs being killed by slow leaks?

Did Alistair Darling save the banks only to lose his own fortune?

The volume of leaks coming from the former chancellor's memoirs via Labour Uncut must be causing anxiety in the Darling household and at the Sunday Times.

The blat is due to serialise "Back from the brink -1000 days at No 11" this weekend, but one wonders what will be left to print.

Already we've learned Darling's opinion on the "volcanic" moods of Gordon Brown, that he wanted to sack Merve "the swerve" King from the Bank of England and his lacerating assessment of Shriti Vadera. Today it is the turn of the Lords of Finance - the bankers who nearly broke the world.

"My worry was that they (the bankers) were so arrogant and stupid that they might bring us all down," writes Darling, according to Labour Uncut.

The former chancellor earned £75,000 for writing the book but stands to gain a lot more from the newspaper serialisation rights. But the Sunday Times must be poring over the small print of the contract, and the extracts, to see what's left to print.

Who is doing the leaking, and spoiling the pitch for the weekend is the big question? It won't be anyone in the Darling camp, he is very proper about these things, and none of his friends would want to see him lose his fees.

Cui bono? Well those that get stiffed in the book, like some former cabinet colleagues, would be keen to kill the serialisation via slow leaks that would take the sting out of an uncomfortable Sunday read. But how would they get a hold of the book in the first place?