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Honeymoon ends

Brian Taylor | 10:00 UK time, Friday, 7 November 2008

No more glad, confident morning. (Labour, of course, would deploy the word "arrogant" instead of "confident.")

This is a substantial setback for Alex Salmond.

Politics is not in stasis. It is about momentum, about progress. The SNP's momentum has stalled in Glenrothes.

Yes, there was a five point net swing to the Nationalists.

Yes, Labour's majority was substantially reduced.

But the SNP needed to do better here - and they know it. They expected to do better, much better.

So what happened? Geography, timing and opportunity.

Firstly, Glenrothes is not Glasgow East.

It is generally a more cohesive society, perhaps less inclined to the outpouring of anger at the state of the world witnessed in the earlier contest.

In addition, it is in Gordon Brown's backyard.

He represented part of the present Glenrothes seat for some 20 years.

His own constituency neighbours the contested division.

That meant he was vulnerable to defeat. It also meant, however, that there was a positive Brown factor. Folk in Glenrothes, folk in Fife, feel a quiet pride that one of their own is PM.

That would make little, lasting difference, frankly, if the negative aura surrounding him had persisted.

However, that had been dissipated by his energetic efforts to resolve the global financial crisis.

The world rated him - and Methil decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

That coincidence of timing - the by-election marrying with Mr Brown's rehabilitation - allowed Labour to be heard. No more, no less.

They weren't spending every waking hour defending their boss against the undefensible.

They were permitted an audience by the voters.

They used that audience, that permission, to harry their opponents relentlessly over their local record.

In particular, Labour attacked the Nationalists day and daily over claims that the SNP-led administration in Fife Council had cut home care services for the most vulnerable.

In vain did the SNP protest that this was driven by externally imposed exigencies, that they were doing nothing different from several other councils (including Labour ones) and that they had increased the budget in key areas of expenditure.

Folk in Glenrothes weren't interested in what was happening elsewhere.

They weren't examining the root cause. They were upset with their council. And their council was led by Peter Grant. The SNP candidate in this by-election.

Of course, the issue of local authority home care isn't, directly, one for the MP, one for this by-election.

In that sense, it was extraneous.

Further, the SNP accused Labour of "dishonestly" stoking fears.

Politically, however, it was legitimate. Labour saw an SNP weakness and went for it without mercy.

The SNP were unable to counter-attack.

In particular, they were unable to find a hard enough narrative about the economy.

For example, folk saw that they had, broadly, supported the prime minister's initiative on the banks.

Alex Salmond's understandably subtle fence-sitting on HBOS didn't cut it in the context of a by-election.

Mr Salmond attracts no blame for that. His stance was driven by the need to consider longer-term Scottish interests. But it didn't make for a tough attack line on the doorsteps.

Which leaves us where? On the BBC programme overnight, Jim Sillars reckoned the result would be good for the SNP if it acted as a wake-up call.

Certainly, such a call is now on offer. If the SNP responds with humility, rather than persisting in accusing Labour of dirty tactics, then Mr Sillars might ultimately have a point.

Does the by-election tell us anything about independence? Frankly, no.

The topic was scarcely raised, either by the SNP - or, intriguingly, by Labour in contradistinction to their stance in Glasgow East.

It does tell us, however, that the sense of unimpeded progress for the SNP is at an end.

They lost Glenrothes on local factors.

How, though, to explain the fact that they also lost two council by-elections to Labour last night, one in Glasgow, one in Edinburgh? Their momentum has stalled.

Does it tell us much about a UK General Election? Not really, no. Labour will not be able to behave like an opposition in such a contest, as they did here.

They will primarily be fighting the Conservative Party who were squeezed in Glenrothes (although not as tightly as the LibDems.)

It indicates, however, that the fault line in Scottish politics - Labour v the SNP - is as sharp as ever and that Labour is capable of regrouping.

If repeated, that could impact on certain Westminster seats, to Labour's advantage.

However, if the economy continues downwards, that impact might not be repeated.

Same story with regard to a Holyrood General Election. We should be careful not to read too much into a contest driven by distinct circumstances.

In short, though, Gordon Brown is entitled to don an authentic smile this morning. He has won. He has won well.

Congratulations to Lindsay Roy, the newly-elected Labour MP for Glenrothes. He is new to electoral politics: indeed, he was offered at various points to the voters as if he were an outsider, an antidote to politics.

The Sarah Palin of Cardenden.

Isn't there a beautiful irony there?

During his travails, at the Labour conference in Manchester, Gordon Brown said it was "no time for a novice" to take charge in Britain.

His political prospects have now been rescued by a quintessential novice.


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