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Scotland’s energy capital Aberdeen became the centre of its independence debate, as the UK cabinet met in a gold-windowed oil company complex and its Scottish government rival gathered in an under-heated church hall just five miles south.
The unprecedented contest of the cabinets was triggered when coalition ministers decided to make a rare collective foray north of the border to emphasise the benefits of staying in the UK for Scotland’s North Sea oil and gas industry.
But the UK cabinet’s Scottish sojourn looked unlikely to sway many northeastern voters and gave Alex Salmond, Scotland’s wily first minister, another opportunity to accuse David Cameron, UK prime minister, of ducking his repeated challenges to a televised debate.
John Riley, a self-employed roofer in the small Aberdeen town of Portlethen where the Scottish cabinet met, said bringing the UK cabinet to the area looked like a clever trick – but that he would much prefer a Cameron-Salmond encounter.
“There are lots of things we need to know and a debate would help,” said Mr Riley, who has yet to decide how to vote in September’s independence referendum. “I think David Cameron’s running scared.”
Portlethen resident Robert Calvert, who will vote No, said he thought the prime minister was right to decline to take on Mr Salmond – a sharp debater and accomplished TV performer – but that he had few hopes that the cabinet visit would boost support for the UK. “I don’t think it will sway anything,” Mr Calvert said.
Mr Salmond’s Scottish National party government certainly won the higher ground when it came to public engagement, with their cabinet meeting at the hilltop Portlethen parish church followed immediately by a public meeting where he and his ministers laid out their vision for independence.
Mr Salmond seized the opportunity to fire a few of his trademark barbs at the UK government, mocking its handling of the oil sector and saying he had fallen “among thieves” by being elected a Westminster member of parliament in 1987.
The first minister told the public meeting he still hoped Mr Cameron might use the geographical “coincidence” of cabinet proximity to hold a debate. “I’m here, I’m ready, I’m willing,” he said.
But Mr Salmond’s political skills are far from universally admired. Outside the Portlethen Co-operative supermarket, local resident Barbara Hill was dismissive. “Dinna ask me about him,” she said. “He just gets me the wrong way . . . I’m a definite No.”
Fellow shopper, drilling company warehouseman and independence activist Malcolm Bremner, seized on Mr Cameron’s decision not to give advance details of where his cabinet would meet – a choice officials said reflected standard security policy – or to hold public discussions on independence.
The UK prime minister did fly to an oil rig and his ministers fanned out to make the UK’s case at carefully selected companies, a power plant and an army unit, but media access was minimal.
The decision to hold the UK cabinet meeting behind the gold-mirrored windows of the Aberdeen headquarters of oil major Royal Dutch Shell offered the sharpest of contrasts to the chilly church hall where Scottish ministers gathered.
But Michael Gove, the Scots-born education secretary for England who grew up in the Aberdeen area, dismissed suggestions the UK cabinet was missing the chance to connect with Scottish voters.
Mr Gove said he been in the area for four days with encounters including time spent in Aberdeen’s Prince of Wales pub, and that meeting in a Shell office was a way of underlining the importance of the energy sector.
Mr Cameron has hosted seven cabinets outside Whitehall: in Bristol, Derby, Bradford, Cardiff, Ipswich, Leeds and the Olympic Village in East London. Those trips often coincide with other major public engagements. Number 10 said Monday’s itinerary in Aberdeen, during which Mr Cameron chose not to copy the SNP’s town-hall-style meeting, was in keeping with previous regional cabinets.
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