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David Cameron and Ed Miliband are to scrap their weekly House of Commons question time duel to make an emergency campaign visit to Scotland on Wednesday, with polls showing next week’s independence vote is in the balance.
The decision by the two leaders to suspend hostilities is a sign of how much is riding on the vote. Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat leader, will also travel north to join the campaign.
“There is a lot that divides us – but there’s one thing on which we agree passionately: the United Kingdom is better together,” the three leaders said in a joint statement.
“That’s why all of us are agreed the right place for us to be tomorrow is in Scotland, not at Prime Minister’s Questions in Westminster.
“Our message to the Scottish people will be simple: ‘We want you to stay’.”
Number 10 itself will fly the Saltire until the referendum is over, something Mr Miliband has also urged Labour councils to do.
The joint visit was decided yesterday at a meeting between Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband, and had not been part of Number 10’s plans earlier in the day. But while the three party leaders have agreed to travel on the same day, they will not actually appear at any joint events, according to officials.
Meanwhile Mr Cameron told ministers at Tuesday morning’s cabinet meeting that they should do everything they can to campaign for the union in the next few days.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “The prime minister told cabinet there is nothing more important over the coming days than the future of the United Kingdom and the future of Scotland.” He added: “The surveys of public opinion over the last few days have only served to underline that point.”
Mr Cameron said in a television interview that the three politicians would press the No campaign arguments separately. “One thing I’m sure we’ll all say is that it is a matter for people in Scotland to decide, but we want you to stay,” he said.
Mr Miliband said that Scots should be in no doubt that “greater devolution will happen after a No vote”.
“I want the people of Scotland to be in no doubt that the view from the whole of the United Kingdom is yes, things need to change, but let’s change them together,” he said in a TV interview.
Although Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband’s principal concern is to save the union, both have huge personal and political stakes in securing a No vote.
Mr Cameron knows his leadership could be challenged by Tory MPs in the event of a Yes vote, while Mr Miliband would lose a solid block of 41 MPs sent to Westminster by Scotland.
One pro-unionist Conservative MP said on Monday that the decision could backfire as disquiet grows among backbenchers over the leadership’s handling of the referendum.
“Three very English party leaders cancelling PMQs to campaign in Scotland, is this their masterstroke?” the MP asked. “To use a David and Goliath analogy, this could play straight into Alex Salmond’s hands.”
Mr Cameron is expected to announce shortly who he intends to chair a cross-party convention on the transfer of new powers to Holyrood if there were to be a No vote.
The decision follows several opinion polls that show a surge in support for the Yes campaign ahead of the September 18 vote. The latest, published by TNS on Monday night, had the No side on 39 per cent, down from 45 per cent last month, and the Yes camp on 38 per cent, up from 32 per cent.
Among voters who said they were certain to vote, the two sides were locked at 41 per cent, with 18 per cent undecided.
The No camp on Monday also promised Scots “modern home rule within the United Kingdom” on a breakneck timetable if they rejected independence.
Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and head of the Yes campaign, has said the announcements by Westminster-based parties are a sign of the No camp’s panic.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Rigby in London