Thursday, 4 April 2013

Cameron sails into uncharted waters

There is an old  political adage, played out in the tv drama the West Wing - never let a good crisis go to waste.

As the nation woke to the news of the US deploying anti-missile batteries in Guam to counter a threatened nuclear strike by a rogue North Korea, David Cameron chose to issue a timely reminder of why he wants Britain to keep its nuclear deterrent.

But ramming home his case for nuclear arms with an audacious sail up the Clyde aboard a Vanguard submarine also sends the independence debate to Defcon Two, one step away from total war. 

The symbolism couldn’t be more explicit. While Alex Salmond is away gallivanting in New York the Prime Minister is parking tanks, or should it be subs, on his lawn.

Cameron has dismissed the idea of a one-on-one  independence debate with Salmond but here he is picking a fight on his own terms, with the biggest club in the armoury.
Downing Street want to make Cameron look like a duffle-coated Jack Hawkins (The Cruel Sea) in charge of our defence destiny, and reduce Alex Salmond to pipe-puffing Para Handy (The Vital Spark).

Cameron knows one of the big uncertainties for Scottish voters is what would happen to defence jobs and defence of the realm under independence. The SNP has not been able to assure the public on the issue and now Cameron is driving home the advantage.
Defence is one thing, but the multi- billion Trident deterrent is a divisive issue in Scotland. Having the city killer parked on the Clyde is a source of resentment for many Scots, but also a source of employment for many others. 

One result form the sub stunt is guaranteed - the SNP will go ballistic. Trident is a touchstone issue for nationalists. Opposition to nuclear weapons is one of the reasons many people joined the party in the first place, and focus group evidence tells the SNP it is one of the issues that appeals not only to the faithful but helps slice off some left wing votes that could otherwise be with the Union.

The SNP leadership will feign outrage, be privately delighted, and then use the pictures of “Kim Jong-Cam” astride the nuclear sub for the next 18 months.

But Downing Street is sensing that the SNP is on the back foot. With a tremendous election winning year in 2011 Salmond won the first round of the Battle for Britain.

Cameron, unlike the Spanish government, which has goaded Catalans into the hands of nationalists at each cack-handed turn, boxed clever and calmed the waters.

The PM offered to clear any legal impediment to a referendum vote in Scotland, so long as it was only one question and done and dusted by the end of 2014.

The talks were headed by the slow pulse Lib Dem Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, leaving Salmond only air to punch at. In what the SNP described as a historic deal, he was boxed into a one question vote within a time limit. Round two, in 2012, went to Cameron. 
In the 2013 phoney war, with over a year to run to a vote, experienced strategists are telling Cameron to up the tempo to stop any chance of Salmond getting back onto the front foot.
The SNP leader has suffered various slings and arrows this year, nothing fatal, but once you start losing forward political traction it is very difficult to regain.
Having the Prime Minister come up the Clyde in a nuclear sub is bound to provoke a reaction - a nuclear one from the independence camp for sure. But it will focus the minds of the majority of voters on the defence issue and independence and on that deep, almost subconscious concern, who guard us in our sleep. 
In that sense you see the pared-down strategy of Cameron’s Australian election guru Lynton Crosby having its effect on the referendum debate, combining with the tv opportunism of Craig Oliver, Downing Street’s Scottish-born director of communications. 
The must have thought it was a good idea, but this stunt is not like flipping burgers at a Downing Street barbeque with Barack Obama, where all that could go wrong was a singed chicken wing. 

As a photo opportunity this is high risk, potentially explosive even, and the debate could swing the other way. Remember, it is not just the Royal Navy that  has form for putting its own ships onto the rocks

No comments:

Post a Comment