Tuesday 25 September 2012

Referendum talks - one question, do you agree?

There are several versions of Salmond being ready to give up on a second referendum question in the papers today, mostly spun from a vague answer the First Minister gave to a question from the LA Times.

Below is a full version in the Daily Record story I filed, which was sourced far away from the pages of the LA Times.

In short the referendum is going to be one question -  something the Westminster-Holyrood talks on power transfer have been inching towards since Nicola Sturgeon took over for the SNP.

The Electoral Commission will rule on the wording provided by the Scottish Government - the crucial phrasing "do you agree" that Scotland should be independent is likely to be used. Cameron doesn't think the outcome will be greatly affected by the question.

People aged 16 to 18 will have the vote -  if it is technically possible to get them on the electoral roll in time for 2014. Westminster doesn't believe it is and is leaving the task to Holyrood. Whitehall data and other polling  shows that  Scottish teenagers coming of voting age, like the rest of the population, are against independence by a margin of two to one.

Michael Moore is on stage today at the Lib Dem conference. He may make reference to the talks but both sides have been playing their cards close to their chests.

The concessions allow Salmond to proclaim that the referendum will be "made in Scotland" while the single question means Cameron can be satisfied  the matter will be resolved - one way or the other

Here's the story, for The Record

Alex Salmond is on the brink of agreeing to a one question referendum on Scottish Independence in the Autumn of 2014.

In a major concession to David Cameron the SNP leader has given up hope of obtaining his favoured two question ballot that would give voters the option of independence or a second choice of more powers for the Scottish parliament.

But Salmond has won the battle over the wording and timing of the vote.

The ballot paper is likely to ask people if they agree Scotland should become an independent nation.

Cameron has relaxed about the wording of the question after being assured by referendum experts that the word “agree” will not create a significant bias in favour of a yes vote

The Prime Minister is also willing to concede to a key SNP demand that Scotland’s 16 and 17 year old teenagers will be able to vote in the historic referendum.

The timing of the vote is also being left to Holyrood although the legal powers being granted by Westminster will lapse before the next Scottish election in 2016.

The deal paving the way for the vote is due to be signed off by the UK Prime Minister and the First Minister at a special meeting in late October

After talks between SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Secretary Michael Moore yesterday both sides said that they were still some distance from agreement.

But The Record understands that when Alex Salmond and David Cameron meet in October they will be asked to sign off on a deal that will transfer legal powers for a referendum to Scotland - on condition that voters are asked a single question.

Cameron had drawn a line in the sand over the one question indy referendum, demanding that the poll give a decisive answer on Scotland’s future.

Salmond has been hedging his bets on a two-question ballot so that if he loses on independence he can claim that a majority in favour of more powers support him on a “journey” to home rule with full powers for the parliament.

Sturgeon and Moore are also ready to agree that the wording of the question will be drawn up by the UK Electoral Commission and will be subject to the approval of the Scottish parliament.

Westminster is willing to accept a form of question asking people if they agree that Scotland should become independent despite fears that it will add an element of bias to the outcome.

Experts on referendums have convinced Westminster Ministers that after a thorough two year campaign voters will be highly familiar with what they are being asked to decide on and the outcome will not be affected that much by how the question is framed.

The teenage vote is also being conceded by Westminster because polls show that like the general Scottish population young people are against independence by a margin of two to one.

Westminster civil servants believe that it will be technically difficult to get all people aged 16-18 onto the electoral roll in time for a 2014 poll. The task is being left to the Scottish government to organise.

In a joint statement after their hour long talks yesterday Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon and Secretary of State, Michael Moore said: “Substantial progress has been made, and at previous meetings, on the ground work for an agreement and in discussing the detail of individual issues. We now need to see these individual issues in totality, and have asked officials to put together a package over the next few days.

‘We will discuss again whether the proposed package has reached a form we are able to recommend the full agreement to the First Minister and the Prime Minister.”

A spokesman for the First Minister said last night: “This is Scotland’s referendum, and the arrangements for it should be made in Scotland, not dictated by Westminster. All of the relevant issues governing the referendum, including that of a second question – which has significant support amongst the public and civic society – must be determined in the interests of the people of Scotland, not in the narrow interests of any political party. That is the spirit in which the Scottish Government is approaching the discussions that are currently underway with the UK Government.”

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Cameron sets tone for Hillsborough apology

Commons Sketch for The Record (a rare thing these days)

A profound quiet settled on the Commons chamber as the Prime Minister announced the results of the Hillsborough Inquiry.

MPs who had been braying across the benches minutes earlier, sat just stunned as David Cameron conveyed details of the shocking aftermath of that sunny Saturday afternoon in Sheffield 23 years ago.

The silence was broken only by collective gasps, as it was revealed how police had sought to impinge the reputations of the 96 dead, running their details for criminal checks and even testing the bodies of children for alcohol.

Former Labour Minister Andy Burnham, who commissioned the independent report, sat on the benches behind Ed Miliband. He had difficulty maintaining his composure, constantly adjusting his cuffs to distract himself.

Maria Eagle and Steve Rotheram, the moptop MP for Liverpool Walton who was in the ground that day, looked equally shattered.

Yet they found their voices, cracking with emotion, in the hushed debate that followed.

The Prime Minister set the solemn tone, sounding just as staggered by conclusions he had read only a few hours earlier.

As he had done for the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, he made a candid, heartfelt apology to Liverpool, and the bereaved who had been slighted.

But important as that was, sorry is no kind of justice for losing your children.

If it had been left to bent police, to doctored ambulance statements, to arbitrary coroner’s reports and vicious media myths the official silence would have held forever.

But the cry for truth from the bereaved of Liverpool would not be quietened.

Ordinary people knew what happened, smelt a police conspiracy, and campaigned against a wall of officialdom for years. Finally, yesterday they were taken seriously.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Back In The Thick Of It

I've been Tuckered - again.

By chance and circumstance I went along to a preview screening of the new series of In The Thick Of It last night. Peter Capaldi wasn't there (the pic is from an earlier encounter we had and, yes, I failed the audition) but the cast who did come along were great fun.

The first two episodes of the new series are hilarious and far more squirmingly uncomfortable for the opposition than for the government. After all we know what the inside of government looks like from earlier episodes but the Armando Iannucci treatment of the politically powerless is, ouch, witheringly funny and close to the bone.

It all kicks off on Saturday night at 9.45pm on BBC2.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Comings and Goings at Downing Street

BBC's Norman Smith telling us who's up and who's down this morning
The Ministerial Jaguars are crowded into Downing Street like airliners stacked over Heathrow this morning as David Cameron's first cabinet reshuffle gets underway.

The street used to be packed on reshuffle days, once an annual event, but Twitter has drained the colour out of the occasion, the announcements are around the world before the new Ministers come smiling out the door. But it was a nice enough day to hang about outside the seat of government even though Downing Street rarely gets sunlight.

The top ranks remain the same with Iain Duncan Smith digging in his heels at welfare. So, the top news so far is Jeremy Hunt becoming the luckiest man in Britain - with the jaws of death ready to snap on his Murdoch-tainted career as Culture Secretary he is promoted to one of the biggest jobs in government.

Ken Clarke having to become the official Shadow shadow chancellor, tasked to sell the economic medicine that George Osborne has become too unpopular to administer in public, is a sign of how much trouble the Coalition is on the economy.

Partick McLaughlin, a former miner, is the new Transport Secretary which means a third runway at Heathrow is back on the agenda. Labour leader Ed Miliband is, remember, opposed to Heathrow expansion.

So too is Tory environmentalist MP Zac Goldsmith who has threatened a Heathrow by-election in his Richmond Park marginal constituency if the government does a loop the loop on its pledge to block expansion.

Devo-sceptic, former Assembly member David Jones is the new Welsh Secretary. There's been no news on the Scotland Office yet but Michael Moore is expected to stay exactly where he is. If that changes my day gets a lot more exciting.

No big intake of women and and reversion to an all-white cabinet for the first time in 15 years, although Warsi  is sitting in on cabinet as compensation for losing her job as co-chair of the party. That's progress for you.

Monday 3 September 2012

Back to school speculation

All this is speculation - and with that qualifier we're all back in Westminster, eagerly awaiting news of the first Coalition reshuffle.

Who's up who's down, will Ken Clarke walk, will Baroness Warsi wail - we just don't know yet. Looks like the prints will get a sniff for tomorrow morning and that the cards will be dealt before cabinet, the timing of which we don't know yet either.

I suspect that by Wednesday our fever will have subsided and we'll be back to worrying about economy. i also suspect that Michael Moore will still be Scottish Secretary, despite the wild, what's the word, speculation about Jo Swinson or Menzies Campbell taking his place.

In the tortoise and hare race to the referendum Moore may have failed to set the heather on fire with his rhetoric. But in a battle for reasonableness, which is where most votes lie, he sounds plain and sensible just as Salmond's excuses for not engaging with Westminster are in danger of sounding less plausible.

George Osborne, assuming he still is chancellor, is due to make a speech in Scotland on the economy later this week. As the chair of the cabinet committee deciding Coalition policy on a referendum, I dare say he'll stir it on the constitutional argument too.