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David Cameron has said “emphatically” that he will not resign if Scotland votes to leave the union this month, amid signs that Westminster and the City are starting to take seriously the prospect of a Yes vote.
Mr Cameron, who is unpopular north of the border, is anxious not to give Scots another reason to vote Yes. He said: “It is very important for people in Scotland to realise the consequence of their vote is purely and simply about Scotland and its place in the United Kingdom.”
A poll this week gave the No campaign a lead of just 53 to 47, prompting Tory MP Edward Leigh to claim that party leaders had been “complacent” and that Britain could be heading for “a national humiliation of catastrophic proportions”.
Investors, who had been counting on a No vote, also took note. Many rushed to buy insurance this week against a fall in sterling or in gilts prices, two of the most likely consequences of a surprise Yes vote. Shares in leading banks with cross-border exposure also suffered.
Mr Cameron told the BBC that it would “break my heart if Scotland were to leave the UK” but he has been advised that he could make matters worse if he were to take a much higher-profile role in the No campaign.
The prime minister has only made a few forays north of the border during the referendum campaign. These have included visits to an army base, an oil company headquarters, a business leaders’ dinner and an unannounced trip to the Shetland islands. All were carefully chosen locations, where he was able to avoid the risk of hostile large crowds.
Government strategists are also reluctant to change the emphasis of the No campaign, which has concentrated heavily on flagging the risks of independence rather than articulating a positive case for the 307-year-old union.
While Mr Cameron is expected to make one more visit to Scotland, Labour leader Ed Miliband promised on Thursday that his party would mount a big push in the run-up to polling day on September 18.
Ed Balls, shadow chancellor, and John Prescott, former deputy prime minister, will make campaign speeches next week while Mr Miliband and Gordon Brown, former premier, will hold a final campaign rally next Friday.
Mr Miliband admitted he felt a “huge sense of responsibility”, but shrugged off suggestions that he should resign if Scotland votes No. “This is not about one individual,” he said on a visit to Blantyre in Lanarkshire.
The Labour leader said he would sweep the Tories from power in Westminster next year and deliver new powers to the Scottish parliament in social policy, tax and work programmes.
But a Yes vote could throw the 2015 British election into confusion; some Tory ministers have floated the idea of postponing the poll by a year until Scotland completes its transition to independence.
They argue that Mr Miliband could not form a government in 2015 with the support of Scottish MPs, who would lose their seats as soon as Scotland became independent.
However any delay in the 2015 election would require a parliamentary act – including approval by the House of Lords – and might be impossible to enact, even if Mr Cameron tried.
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