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David Cameron embarks on a two-day visit to Scotland today, determined to prove to Alex Salmond that his presence can help rather than hinder the No campaign in September’s independence referendum.
The prime minister has admitted his appeal is limited in Scotland, but sees his role as reminding Scots that the English have “a voice but not a vote” in the referendum and that they want their northern neighbours to stay in the Union.
Mr Salmond, Scottish first minister, said on the eve of the visit that Mr Cameron had “negligible support in Scotland” and that he could not command political authority over a country that would “never elect people like him to govern us”.
Mr Salmond believes UK-wide opinion polls showing the Tories taking a lead over Labour will help him make the case that Scots can best rid themselves of the Conservatives by voting for independence.
The expected success of Ukip in next week’s European elections could also play into his hands; he wants Scotland to remain in the EU and says it is further evidence of England drifting to the right.
One senior Lib Dem said: “A Ukip victory is one of the most serious threats to the future of the United Kingdom.” Recent polls suggest that No campaign has managed to slow or stop the Yes campaign’s erosion of its lead among Scottish voters.
Mr Cameron will try to reach across party lines by invoking the spirit of John Smith, the former Labour leader and champion of Scottish devolution, as an example of someone who was proud to be both Scottish and British.
The prime minister is also expected to meet more “real people” and stay overnight in Scotland; the No campaign admits he sent out the wrong impression when he made a flying visit to Aberdeen for a cabinet meeting in February.
“The image on the television was of cars and outriders and Cameron going into a big corporate HQ,” said one pro-Union campaigner. This week’s visit is a riposte by the prime minister to those who say he has been too low-key in the campaign.
However access to Mr Cameron for the general public will be heavily controlled, depriving nationalists of the opportunity to “ambush” him; Mr Salmond is likely to claim again that Mr Cameron is frightened to engage with voters.
Alistair Darling, head of the Better Together campaign, is keen for Mr Cameron to make the emotional case for the Union and the prime minister is expected to make several more visits to Scotland before polling day.
But Mr Cameron admitted in January: “I humbly accept that while I am sure there are many people in Scotland who would like to hear me talk about this issue, my appeal doesn’t stretch to every single part.”
To avoid giving Scots another reason to vote for independence, Mr Cameron has let it be known that he would not resign as prime minister if Scotland voted Yes – in spite of being leader of the Conservative and Unionist party.
John Curtice, politics professor at Strathclyde University, said interventions from Conservative politicians from south of the border were unlikely to be helpful and could actually damage support for the Union.
“If you want to persuade people to vote No to independence, you need to get people in Scotland to persuade them,” Prof Curtice said. “’Keep away’ is my advice.”
While the No campaign still wants to use Mr Cameron for big interventions, it is also preparing to unleash some of Labour’s biggest figures in Scotland as the campaign enters its final stages.
Gordon Brown, former prime minister, and John Reid, former home secretary, are both expected to take more prominent roles, while Frank Roy, a Labour MP and former steelworker, is giving Better Together a tougher campaigning edge.
The campaign has rejected as “complete rubbish” suggestions that Alistair Darling, former chancellor, was being sidelined as its leader. But other Labour figures including Douglas Alexander, shadow foreign secretary, and Jim Murphy, shadow international development secretary, are taking an increasingly prominent role.