When the prime minister hosted a dinner for Scotland’s political and industrial leaders in his Fife home on Wednesday night, there was bound to be the occasional frisson over the Hebridean peat-smoked salmon and roasted rack of lamb.
That is because Gordon Brown’s guests included Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National party and first minister at Holyrood. Both men, who do not conceal their dislike for each other, are locked in a bitter battle for political advantage that could help determine the outcome of the next general election – and Scotland’s constitutional future.
It is no coincidence that, in a rare foray out of London to attend a memorial service in Aberdeen for the 16 victims of the North Sea helicopter crash, the cabinet will meet on Thursday in Glasgow, in Labour’s heartland of west central Scotland.
Last July, the SNP won a sensational by-election victory in the formerly rock-solid Labour seat of Glasgow East, with a 22 per cent swing to the nationalists.
But that proved to be a high point for the SNP, which had formed a minority government at Holyrood the previous year, ending almost half a century of Labour domination of Scottish politics.
What had appeared to be the unstoppable momentum of the SNP was halted by the economic crisis that broke last autumn – not least the meltdown that engulfed Scotland’s two biggest financial institutions, Edinburgh-based Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS, which included the 300-year-old Bank of Scotland.
Mr Brown was quick to claim that an independent Scotland could not have bailed out its struggling banks, while Mr Salmond sought to pin responsibility for the economic downturn on Westminster, accusing Mr Brown of creating an “age of irresponsibility” and labelling him a “subprime minister”.
The reversal of the SNP’s fortunes was confirmed in a November by-election when Labour succeeded in comfortably holding on to its Westminster seat of Glenrothes – a by-election many Labour supporters had written off as a lost cause.
A recent poll of Scottish voters’ intentions in June’s elections to the European Parliament put Labour on 41 per cent, compared with 30 per cent for the SNP, 13 per cent for the Scottish Conservatives and 10 per cent for the Liberal Democrats.
Professor Bill Miller, of Glasgow University, said: “The result demonstrates that although Alex Salmond remains Scotland’s most popular politician, his party polls less well in a non-Holyrood context.”
Last year, Mr Salmond forecast his party would raise its number of MPs at Westminster from seven to 20 at the next election – enough to hold the balance of power, should there be a hung parliament. That target now looks ambitious, and with little evidence of a “Cameron bounce” helping the Conservatives north of the border – and little sign of Lib Dem progress – Scottish politics looks set to be dominated by the tussle between Labour and the SNP.
The SNP government won early praise from the business community for freezing the council tax, abolishing road bridge tolls and cutting rates for small businesses. But the SNP has accepted there is no majority at Holyrood for its plan to replace council tax with a local income tax, and has dropped controversial proposals to lease out up to 25 per cent of Scotland’s forests.
Labour is determined to focus its attacks on the SNP for reneging on election promises, while the nationalists complain their hands are tied by their minority status at Holyrood.
But the SNP has maintained its position as the main destination for non-Labour votes in Scotland. Should Mr Brown be ousted at the next general election, Mr Salmond is confident he will reap a rich harvest of disgruntled former Labour voters at the subsequent Holyrood elections in 2011.
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