Strategies for taking on Salmond

  • 9 June 2011
  • From the section Scotland
  • comments

It must have seemed a good idea when it was planned in advance. Perhaps looking in his mirror, new Labour MSP Neil Findlay foresaw himself ambushing the first minister.

His question dealt with corporation tax - which Alex Salmond wants devolved to Scotland in order to permit his government to lower it, thus offering an incentive to firms to invest here.

Mr Findlay recalled that Mr Salmond was expelled from the Commons in 1988. He suggested that was because he had - then - opposed a cut in corporation tax and interrupted the Budget statement in so doing. Why the difference, he inquired?

Mr Salmond arose magisterially and, with a mischievous smile, set about demolishing his tyro assailant.

The FM said his memory was rather better because he had "been there". The protest, he said, had been against cuts in upper rate income tax and the imposition of the poll tax. Most Labour MPs, he recalled, had backed the Tory chancellor in voting to kick him out of the Commons.

Actually, the record in Hansard is rather kinder to Mr Findlay. The protest was indeed about overall income tax policy but Mr Salmond's high-volume intervention came just after the chancellor had mentioned a cut in the basic rate of income tax - and small companies corporation tax.

However, today, in the Holyrood chamber, in the public exchanges, Mr Salmond flattened his opponent. Rough, maybe, but that's politics.

Mr Salmond quoted his predecessor, Jack McConnell, in support of the argument that Scotland must not be neglected if corporation tax is devolved to Northern Ireland. Labour, he implied, should tak tent.

On that issue itself, further informed speculation comes my way. It is suggested in some quarters that Scotland will not be granted control of corporation tax - and, crucially, neither will Northern Ireland. That the Treasury is reasserting control.

'Salmond threat'

As expected, Scotland's scheduled new borrowing powers are to be brought forward. In Edinburgh today, the deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced that the Scottish government can draw down this year from the capital borrowing pot planned for 2013.

The announcement was, quite deliberately, made ahead of talks with Mr Salmond this afternoon. Front foot, you understand, not reactive. With Mr C standing by the Forth - whose replacement crossing will be funded via capital borrowing powers.

The UK government has grasped that it has to counter what it sees as the "threat" posed by Mr Salmond in a proactive fashion.

Earlier efforts - such as Michael Moore's double referendum - drew satire from the FM, not least today. He grinned (again) when he said he had met the Scottish secretary yesterday - and would meet him again today. It was, he said, a "two meetings strategy".

As the Telegraph reports today, the prime minister has now convened a UK government committee to consider a sustained response to the new political situation in Scotland.

Next public step will be for Mr Moore to spell out any enhancement to the Scotland Bill which is presently before Westminster. Strictly speaking, he will be responding to the cross-party committee report from the previous Holyrood parliament.

Advanced borrowing powers were demanded in that report. Hence, it is said, today's announcement is in response to that. Not, technically, to Mr Salmond.

Not sure the UK government should push that line too much. Yes, it may be responding to the committee (headed by Wendy Alexander). But things have rather altered since.

Still, the UK government seems disinclined to grant many, if any, of Mr Salmond's other demands; some of which were reflected in the Alexander committee report.

'Multi-option plebiscite'

And what of the longer term? What of the referendum? One issue is whether it should be a straight yea or nay to independence - or a multi-option plebiscite, also including the prospect of fiscal autonomy within the UK.

A multi-question ballot is the Scottish government's present position in line with its most recent White Paper on the topic.

UK ministers don't fancy that, for two reasons. One, they think it muddies the issue of independence. Two, if Scots vote for much more power, then there would be substantial pressure on the UK government to respond, to go far further than the present Scotland Bill.

A further issue. We know who would head the Yes to Independence campaign. (Hint: he occupies Bute House.) But who would head the No camp (or Yes to the Union as they would undoubtedly prefer to style it)?

The prime minister? He who leads a party with one MP in Scotland? The Scottish secretary, then? Reflecting a party which lost every mainland constituency in the Holyrood elections?

Such matters are being discussed - with, for example, experts looking at models for cross-party referendum campaigns, including the one on the monarchy in Australia.

UK ministers, then, envisage a cross-party Unionist campaign - with, if it can be agreed, Labour to the fore in Scotland as the largest party endorsing that Union north of the border. It is said that early contacts have already been made with the Labour leadership.

PS: Discernible improvement today in the amount of time made available to backbenchers at FMQs. Eleven such MSPs were called, the most since 2007.

After discreet discussions through official channels, front bench contributions were shortened. Mind you, that is partly because this was the one week in three when Willie Rennie of the LibDems is obliged to sit silent, unheeded and uncalled.

Still, the new Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick can undoubtedly chalk up progress.