George Osborne was on Sunday scrambling to head off a surge in support for Scottish independence with a promise of more powers for Holyrood, but behind the scenes some senior Tories were preparing for possible defeat.
The chancellor promised within days “a plan of action to give more powers to Scotland”, including more control over taxes, welfare spending and job creation if the country rejects independence on September 18.
But nationalists accused Mr Osborne of “panicking” in the face of a Sunday Times/YouGov poll that put the campaign for independence narrowly ahead by 51 per cent to 49 per cent – the first time a survey has given the Yes side a lead this year.
Mr Osborne dismissed suggestions that a Yes vote might trigger resignations from the government, telling the BBC: “This is not about individuals.”
But several Tory MPs told the Financial Times they were called over the weekend by officers of the backbench 1922 committee – the so-called “men in grey suits” – to see if David Cameron would retain their confidence if he lost next week’s vote.
One MP said that if Mr Cameron lost the United Kingdom, some Tory MPs with grievances towards the prime minister would take the chance to make a move against a leadership. “The buck stops with him,” the MP said.
A number of Tory MPs are frustrated by Mr Cameron’s refusal to countenance a non-aggression electoral pact with Ukip. “The issues could all come together,” said another Tory MP. A vote of confidence in Mr Cameron would be triggered if 46 Tory MPs requested one.
The YouGov poll made for an awkward weekend for Mr Cameron, who was staying with the Queen at Balmoral, her Highland retreat.
Buckingham Palace responded to reports that the Queen was “horrified” by the prospect of the break-up of the UK by saying she was “strictly neutral” in the independence debate but was taking “a close interest” in events.
Mr Osborne’s promise of a timetable for further devolution to Scotland, which is expected to include a cross-party convention to hammer out details of the transfer of powers, exposed a lack of co-ordination in the No campaign.
Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat Scottish secretary, said it was “just a new statement on something I’ve been saying for months”.
Alex Salmond, Scotland’s Nationalist first minister, dismissed Mr Osborne’s gambit as lacking credibility, particularly as many voters in Scotland had voted by post. “It shows the chaos, confusion and total disintegration of the No campaign,” he said.
Meanwhile, a flagship £350m development plan to transform the heart of Scotland’s largest city would be at risk if the country leaves the UK, a person familiar with the project has warned.
At stake is a programme to double the size of Glasgow’s Buchanan Galleries, a joint venture between Land Securities, the UK’s biggest listed property company by market value, and TIAA Henderson Real Estate.
Backers of the venture, set to create 1,700 jobs, have privately raised concerns about economic uncertainty following independence and would be prepared to scrap it, the person said.
Separately, some of the country’s leading financial service providers, including Lloyds Banking Group and Standard Life, have reassured investors that contingency plans are in place if Scotland votes for independence.
Rupert Murdoch, the media tycoon, claimed in a tweet that Mr Salmond’s private polls gave the Yes vote an advantage of 54-46, adding that he thought the BBC was “totally biased for No”.
The BBC rejected the claim it is biased against independence, saying its coverage of the referendum is covered by its usual principles of fairness and balance.
Additional reporting by Josephine Cumbo
Letter in response to this report: