Monday, 18 May 2015

SNP grab the front row seat from Skinner

The SNP has launched an attack on Labour’s left wing squad in Westminster by seizing the front row seats usually occupied by the party’s awkward squad.

The rebels’ bench, down the gangway from the opposition dispatch box, is the prime spot for heckling the Prime Minister across the floor of the Commons.

It has been the preserve of Bolsover MP Dennis Skinner for over 40 years in opposition.

But ahead of the new parliament meeting for the first time today, the SNP have put their towels, or rather their MPs, on the green leather.

Three new SNP MPs were seated in the rebel benches hours ahead of the parliament meeting at 2.30pm.

The MPs were taking it in hour-long shifts to stop Skinner and left-wing Labour colleagues taking the spaces.

Partick Grady, Margaret Ferrier and Stewart Mcdonald (Glasgow South) were camped out on the seats at 11.30am to reserve space for SNP Commons leader Angus Robertson and the SNP’s front bench team.

SNP MP Pete Wishart, who was organising the rota, said: “We are the third party and we will make sure the House sees that.”

There are no rules about where MPs can sit.

By convention when parliament is sitting MPs can reserve seats early in the morning by placing prayer cards in the spaces.

But there are no prayers today ahead of a Speaker being chosen for the new parliament and Wishart signalled that the SNP is ready to defy the convention.

“We are there, this is where we want to be, this is our space in the Commons,” he said.

The move to symbolically assert the SNP presence in the Commons comes ahead of the Speaker being chosen and the swearing in process taking place on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Ronnie Campbell, another Labour MP in the awkward squad, said he didn’t see what the fuss was about.
“Alex Salmond put them up to this, do they think they’re more left wing than the Labour party?”

Speaking last week Skinner said that his fight for the seat was not for one day.

“David Owen tried  to take it off me, but he wasn’t prepared for the long fight,” Skinner said, recalling the 1980s split from Labour as if it was just yesterday.

Of the SNP’s possible encroachment on his territory, he said defiantly: “I was there before them, and I’ll be there when they’re gone.”

Update for the Daily Record: Skinner -1, SNP -0
SNP setback
Torcuil Crichton

The SNP suffered their first Westminster setback yesterday when a ruse to seize the rebels’ bench occupied by Dennis Skinner backfired.

Newby SNP MPs were ordered to squat on the rebels’ bench usually occupied by the veteran left winger for hours before the Commons met.

Pete Wishart MP had organised squads of three MPs to take an hour each occupying the bench to reserve it for SNP bigwigs on the first day.

The Perthshire MP declared that the SNP would assert its right as the third largest party to take the front bench and defy Commons convention that has let the veteran Skinner occupy the seat for over 40 years.

The plan worked well all morning but at 1pm, an hour and half before the MPs were due to meet, the SNP squad was asked to vacate the chamber to let police sniffer dogs in.

Labour’s Kevan Jones MP spotted the chance and grabbed the position which is the prime spot for heckling the Prime Minister across the floor of the Commons.

The burly Geordie Labour MP refused to move despite Wishart’s protestations and when the House convened at 2.30pm Skinner was able to take his rightful place.

Another attempt to garner publicity the youngest SNP MP, Mhairi Black, attempted to photobomb opposition leader Harriet Harman by sitting on the Labour benches behind the deputy Labour.

She and SNP colleagues sat next to Labour’s Diane Abbot in order to get their faces on the news.

The SNP’s 56 MPs were on best behaviour as the Commons re-elected John Bercow unopposed as Speaker of the House.

Bercow said he had been honoured to serve as Speaker for the past six years and would be honoured to continue in that role for a “little longer” before being ceremoniously dragged to the speaker’s chair.

In his first comments of congratulation from the dispatch box Prime Minister David Cameron made a point of emphasising that he would govern “for the whole of the United Kingdom”.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

If not Murphy, then who?

Daily Record column 14/05/15

Facing the most draconian trade union laws in a generation you might expect some Scottish trade union alarm.

There was nothing about Business Secretary Sajid Javid’s Thatcherite slingblade on Unison’s Scottish website.
Plenty about shooting down Jim Murphy as Scottish Labour leader though.

Instead of resisting the Tories after the annihilation of Scottish Labour, the mini-McCluskeys have turned inwards.
The case for Murphy going is that he lost. 

It’s doubtful St Mungo could have won for Labour in Glasgow, or anywhere else, against the faith-based economics of independence. 

Cries that Labour was not left-wing enough are hollow. The polices were popular enough to be adopted wholesale for the SNP manifesto.

The electoral test for parties was “How Scottish are you?” So Murphy didn’t lose on policy, he lost on identity.
As the pendulum swings to patriotism the arrival of 56 SNP MPs in Westminster should alter the landscape utterly. 

Everyone is looking for SNP-Tory conflicts, but the mutual accommodation that served both sides in the campaign is likely.

Cameron is set to concede to Sturgeon new powers beyond the Smith Commission. It has inbuilt policy contradictions that need ironing out.

It will not be Full Fiscal Autonomy, with the loss of the Barnett Formula.
“We will not make an offer they cannot refuse, that would do Scotland down,” a senior Tory told me.

With more powers won Sturgeon deftly avoids the second referendum she could lose, but still demand more.
Tempted by another yes-no vote, she can resist internal pressure to stage a referendum without Westminster blessing.

Cameron’s flipside deal, English Votes for English Laws, renders Scotland irrelevant for Tory majorities, keeps the SNP powerful and Labour emasculated. It suits both nationalist sides. 

The last Unionists in the room, Scottish Labour, cannot resist it even if a rearguard in the Lords does.

Sadly for the Union barons attacking Murphy made sure he stayed, and they have no replacement.
If not Murphy, then who?

Under another leader Labour would not just have been defeated last week, but killed stone dead.

Murphy, to his credit, never gave up and didn’t allow the campaign to become a debate on Labour’s implosion.

He has to deal with that now, but having been through hellfire he will hold the SNP to account in Holyrood.

They might have hated the results but the outcome is Labour’s talent is now back in Scotland, where it should have been a decade ago.

Skinner to the barricades

Once it was the SDP, now it’s the SNP.

The battle for Dennis Skinner’s seat begins in earnest when parliament sits for the first time.
I’m not talking about the Beast of Bolsover’s majority, which is solid, but the 83-year-old’s perch down the gangway from the Labour frontbench.

The rebels’ bench is traditionally taken by Labour’s awkward squad in opposition and by the Liberal Democrats when Labour is in office.

With the SNP 56 due to take the place of the Lib Dem phonebox pack, there will be manoeuvres on Skinner’s seat, which he has occupied for 40 years in opposition.

Skinner reserves his place each morning with a prayer card, the traditional way of reserving a seat.
It means being early every morning, which the Labour veteran cannot quite guarantee. 

“David Owen tried  to take it off me, but he wasn’t prepared for the long fight,” Skinner told me, as if the SDP was just yesterday. 

Of the SNP’s possible encroachment on his territory, he said defiantly: “I was there before them, and I’ll be there when they’re gone.”

Where the nationalists choose to sit in public isn’t half as telling as where they sit in private.

Away from the tv cameras my snout in the members’ tearoom tells me the SNP contingent has taken up residence at the Tory end of the room. 


For David Mundell MP, the new Scottish Secretary, it is a case of moving offices in Dover House where he was previously number two to Lib Dem Alistair Carmichael.

In the tradition of Labour’s Liam Byrne I’m told the departing Scottish Secretary left a note for his successor on the desk.

I’m guessing it reads: “I’m afraid there are no powers left”.

Sùil Eile

Mar as àbhaist, tha mi air a bhith a’ sgrùdadh na liosta de Mhinistearan ùra an riaghaltais fheuch a bheil Albannaich ann, neo iadsan aig a bheil ceangal ris a’ Ghàidhealtachd.

Uill, tha Daibhidh Camshronach ann, agus seall cho diofraichte ‘s a tha an sloinneadh aige nuair a sgrìobhas tu a-mach e. ‘S ann à Alba a bha athair.

Roinn an Ionmhais? Tha barrachd mhinistearan à Hertfordshire na Na Hearadh.

Daibhidh Mundell, an aon Tòraidh ann an Alba, mar Rùnaire na h-Alba.

Chunnt mi ceathrar eile. Tha Mìcheal Gove ann, à Obar Dheathain, agus Iain Donnchadh Mac a’ Ghobhainn, a rugadh ann an Dùn Èideann. Ach  bha iadsan ann roimhe.

Tha Ruairidh Stiùbhart a-nis aig DEFRA agus Steaphan Crabb mar Rùnaire na Cuimrigh. Tha freumhan aigesan ann an Inbhir Nis.

Tha nas lugha Albannaich anns an riaghaltas na bha bho chionn bhliadhnaichean, neo ‘s màthaid linntean.

Ach bu chòir fàilte mhòr Ghàidhealach a chur air Amber Rudd mar Rùnaire na Cumhachd ge-tà.

Gun ise cha bhi càball dealain airson tuathanasan gaoithe nan Eileanan an Iar. Sanas comhairle - cheumnaich i à Oilthigh Dhùn Èideann.

(Mile taing mar is àbhaist, Mairi Kidd)

English Translation

As usual, I have been scrutinising the list of new Ministers for Scots, or those who have a connection with the Highlands.

Well, there’s David Cameron, and see how different his surname looks in Gaelic (it means bent nose). His father was from Scotland.

The Treasury? More Ministers from Hertfordshire than Harris.

David Mundell, the one Tory in Scotland, as Scottish Secretary.

I counted four others. There’s Michael Gove, from Aberdeen, and Ian Duncan Smith, born in Edinburgh, but they were there beforehand.

Rory Stewart is now at DEFRA and Steven Crabb as Welsh Secretary. He has roots in Inverness.

There are fewer Scots in the government than there were for years, if not centuries.

But a big Highland welcome has to be laid on for Amber Rudd, the Energy Secretary.

Without her there will be no interconnecter for the windfarms of the Western Isles.

My top tip - she graduated from Edinburgh University.  

(post script: seems, I missed Michael Fallon, who was born in Perth)

Monday, 11 May 2015

The Fifty Six arrive (minus one)

The SNP MPs meet the cameras at St Stephen's Entrance

For the Daily Record

NICOLA Sturgeon greeted her conquering army of MPs at Westminster yesterday with a declaration that David Cameron has “no right” to rule out a second independence referendum.

As the band of nationalist brothers and sisters gathered the St Stephen’s entrance of Westminster in a dramatic display of the SNP’s election success, Sturgeon said she was “not planning” to hold another referendum, but refused to rule it out.

The SNP leader set out her position in an appearance on ITV’s Loose Women (it was that kind of day) ahead of joining the troops outside parliament.

She said: “We had that debate and that vote last year, and Scotland, against my better efforts, opted to stay part of the United Kingdom, to stay part of the Westminster system.

She added: “I’m not planning another referendum. Why I stop short of saying I absolutely guarantee it is the same reason I don’t think David Cameron has got any right to rule it out.”

Supporters at the parliament gate fielded a huge Saltire to challenge the Union flags that dominate the Whitehall skyline.

A huge scrum of photographers shouted at the gathering MPs: “Can you go back, can you go back?”

They were not asking the SNP to turn home, but to move further away so the lenses could fit them all in.

Not all could make it. Islands MP Angus MacNeil was delayed by bad weather, but almost every other corner of Scotland was represented.  

Former First Minister Alex Salmond joined the throng at the last minute, enjoying the moment.

Salmond acknowledged in light of the electoral progress he made the right decision to stand aside as First Minister and return to Westminster as a humble backbencher.

He will not challenge Angus Robertson MP, the sole nominee for the leadership position when the group meets formally on Tuesday.

Salmond said: “I loved being First Minister, but everyone has his time”.

Looking around, he added: “I think things are turning out not too badly, as I see it.”

As well as representing most of Scotland the new MPs looked like a cross-section of Scottish society.

Chris Law, like any Scottish tourist, wanted to see the spot in Westminster Hall where William Wallace was tried.

The pony-haired, six foot six bearded MP looked smart in his three-piece Edinburgh tweed suit.

He vowed to wear tweed for the duration of the five year parliament, if he won.

With London sweltering in 24 degrees centigrade sunshine that second referendum can’t come soon enough for him.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Fealla-dhà cho làidir ri tè mhòr à amhaich a’ bhotail

Leirmheas air Uisge-Beatha Gu Leòr airson an Daily Record

Uaireannan tha an saoghal an crochadh air aon neach - co-dhiù nuair a tha Iain MacRath air an àrd-ùrlar.

Tha an t-actar a’ cluiche làn chèis de charactaran ann an , agus tha an tìde-stèidse agus fealla-dhà aige cho làidir ri tè mhòr à amhaich a’ bhotail.

Le sgioba bheag thàlantach, tha an dealbh-cluich aig Iain Fionnlagh MacLeòid air a h-innis le diofar phàirtean fo dhiofar adan.

Tha an aon chleas ri fhaicinn anns Na 39 Steps, dealbh-chluich eile sa bheil sgioba bheag a’ cluich a h-uile pàirt a th’ ann am fiolm an leabhair.

San aon dòigh, chan e sgeulachd Compton MhicChoinnich a tha seo ach sgriobt stèidhichte air a’ fiolm ainmeil mu dheidhinn na thachair ann an Caolas Eirisgeidh aig àm a’ Chogaidh. Air innse a-rithist anns an latha an-duigh ann an taigh-seinnse.

Chan eil blas na fìrinne dheth, ach tha an sgeulachd èibhinn a’ toirt luchd-amhairc a-mach ‘s a-steach a bhàighean gaoil agus aonarachd le gàire.

Tha Theatar Nàiseanta na h-Alba air turas tarsainn na Gàidhealtachd le Uisge-Beatha Gu Leòr.

Monday, 20 April 2015

A referendum? Don't bet against it

At the SNP manifesto launch

If the SNP manifesto looked familiar it would be because it was a Labour manifesto wrapped in a yellow cover.

Long-standing "progressive" Labour policies, like the 50p tax rate, the mansion tax, and the minimum wage were panhandled as if they were rare Tyndrum gold.

You know when the SNP starts quarrying on the left it is not out of conviction, but convenience. That is where the rich seam of anti-austerity votes are to be found.
Any inconvenience, like the £7.6 billion albatross of full fiscal autonomy, was effectively kicked into the political long grass

An independence referendum was dropped before the groans of an Edinburgh Assembly Rooms audience had time to die away. 

Sturgeon said she wouldn't bet on one in the next five years.  But when she insisted the general election was not about independence, a hearty laugh echoed among the cavernous rock walls chosen for the launch.

Beneath the SNP leader's strong and simple message about standing up for Scotland are layers of complex geology, aimed at different audiences.

A grab for Labour's mantle of social justice combines with a presumptuous vow to deliver it across the whole UK.

That soothes Scottish ears but by reaching out to England Sturgeon does a sterling job for David Cameron in marginal seats where the Tories evoke fear of the SNP to prod voters back to the devil they know. 

To ensure a Tory government, the result that suits the SNP best, winning Scotland is not enough. Labour must be weakened in England too.

But should Miliband emerge as a Prime Minister Sturgeon promised her MPs would be a constructive force, on their best behaviour in the Commons.

That makes perfect sense. To persuade Scots to vote SNP next year they have to be shown it was worth voting nationalist this year.

The odd maverick gesture aside, SNP MPs would be obligingly supportive of Labour for a year, to prove Scots need not vote Labour again.

In time a  "betrayal" could be found and the walls of the Westminster temple brought crashing down, with the role of Samson played by Alex Salmond (sadly absent wrestling lions yesterday). 

You wouldn't bet against as referendum then.   

Thursday, 9 April 2015

From Yes Scotland to Maybes Aye in two nights

From the Scottish leaders debate in Aberdeen for the Daily Record

Barnett vs The FFA might sound like a Soccerworld Scotland League fixture in the north east.

But for thirteen minutes last night Barnett was the byword for a one-sided penalty shoot-out that Nicola Sturgeon lost.

The Barnett formula, which might as well we carved into the Salisbury crags above Holyrood, is the method by which Scotland's public services are generously funded from UK resources.

FFA, or full fiscal autonomy to it give it a Sunday name, is the SNP's fall-back from independence.

It means Scotland would raise and keep all its own taxes, save what it sends to Westminster for shared  services liked defence and foreign affairs.

It means, on current reckoning by independent experts, that Scotland would be £7.6 billion worse off each year, about half the health budget spending.

Nicola Sturgeon said given the chance her MPs would vote for it "next year".

So, the SNP want to cut Scotland's funding next year -it's official.

Cock-a- hoop, Labour thinks Nicola Sturgeon pretty much wrote £7.6 billion cuts into the SNP manifesto last night,  and that the battle lines now are over Tory cuts versus SNP bigger cuts.

They shouldn't get ahead of themselves. Who remembers the results of minor league football fixtures? This score win may not count.

We came to Aberdeen expecting  a dull northern re-match of the Edinburgh fixture.

The sour joker in the pack, UKIP MEP David Coburn, might have stolen the show. But he was reduced to the role of a football mascot, scorned by leaders and audience alike. This was a serious game.

James Cook, the BBC referee, was first to put Sturgeon on the spot. When was it she wanted full fiscal autonomy?

"As quickly as the other parties agree to it," she said.

Murphy was in: "Would your MPs vote for it next year?"

She shot back: "Yes, would you support it?" Ooh, she dropped the ball.

It was a the equivalent of a  defensive pass to an opposing striker, and he wasted no time. "Absolutely not," said Murphy. Who would vote to cut Scotland's funding?

"I don't think it makes sense," he said, as the crowd broke into applause and the other main party leaders lined up to take their free penalty kicks.

Sturgeon was being hammered and Murphy made sure the audience got the point. "Barnett today, tomorrow and forever," is not a terrace chant, but it's what he promised.

Sturgeon's advisers, the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the STUC - all warn of the dangers of cutting Scotland's share of the UK budget.

Spinning back from that is hard. Yes, polling shows people want more powers, but also shows they want the same level of services and pensions as the rest of the UK. No one votes for less, regardless of the timing.

Sturgeon was in more trouble backtracking on the timing of a referendum and Labour, who'd looked and learned, had set a trap and a slogan.

From Yes Scotland to "maybes ayes" in two nights of television is not a good look for an independence leader.

"I don't want to live in a Scotland were we don't have to set up a welfare fund to mitigate Tory cuts," Sturgeon said. But she sounded like a protesting First Minister, not  a party leader on the march, and she was jeered and cheered in equal measure.

It fell to Ruth Davidson delivered the final blow.  She said: "You have to be able to fund welfare . Full fiscal autonomy, right now if we vote for it next year, would mean that we had billions of pounds less in Scotland to spend on welfare."

"In fact, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said it would be £7.6 billion which is more than we spend on every single pensioner in this country.

"That's the other half of the equation that you don't want the people out there to know."

That should have been it but Willie Rennie, back to being cheeky,  could not resist putting the stiletto in. "I think what Nicola fails has to accept is that she lost the referendum last year ."

It was not pretty, political muggings are rarely clean affairs. Being reminded by the audience that she didn't speak for Scotland would not have helped either. 

Debates in themselves might change nothing, but they do set the campaign weather. This was the worst tv night the SNP had since Alistair Darling gave Alex Salmond a bloody nose in the first referendum debate.

Alex Salmond lost that one on the money, and Sturgeon lost last night on the money too.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Just one look, from the real debate winner

For the Daily Record from the Manchester leaders' debate

Sometimes two hours can pass in a flash, sometimes a whole campaign can be captured in a second and a single, unspoken look.

The most revealing moment last night's leaders' debate was only a few seconds long, but it told the whole story.

There he was, David Cameron at the end of a line-up of seven British politicians, smiling to himself as as Nicola Sturgeon tore into Ed Miliband on spending cuts.

The Tory leader had never wanted to go head to head with Ed Miliband, and when the camera cut away and caught him enjoying the spectacle of the SNP leader going for the Labour leader you felt his strategy was a wise one. 

Instead of being held to account, which admittedly he is used to in the Commons, Cameron could lean back for large parts of the debate while six other voices strove to put across their views.

In the opening hour it looked as if things were going to Cameron's plan, which included insisting the Greens be in the room.

From the off it was as if the Coalition had not existed. Nick Clegg, with the biggest yellow Lib Dem tie in Manchester, attacked David Cameron's cuts. But the crossfire from other leaders blunted any direct attack.

There were dividing lines, with the alliance of SNP, Green and Plaid leaders, going against austerity of the three big parties and delivering a vision of the country in accents and words that many other Britons would have found unfamiliar. 

All were nervous to begin with. David Cameron's nerves showed through his sweaty, Richard Nixon upper lip.

But the heat was on them all. Three female leaders, the future of politics, four minor parties, five if you count the Lib Dems, had won the golden ticket to a national stage. They all proved themselves accomplished politicians.

But still only one of two men,  Cameron or Miliband, can come out as the ultimate winner. It was they who had to escape with no wounds or having inflicted damage on their main rival

Ed Miliband, confident, having taken lessons on his posture, stood firm and said "here's what I believe". He listed what he would do at Prime Minister, hoping people at home could believe he would be Prime Minister.

Farage, with nothing to lose, was the most animated of the line-up. Pinstripe suit and polka-dot tie, he "believed in Britain", and called for control of borders to be taken back from the European Union.

Nicola Sturgeon had the most sophisticated strategy,  a message of friendship to the people she wants to make foreigners - the English, Welsh and Northern Irish - while she held out the  prospect of "new, progressive politics" at Westminster

She kept pushing and pulling against the Labour leader in equal measure, promising to support him on poverty reduction but not on cutting public services. He couldn't quite attack her, couldn't quite reject her. That could be Miliband's bind after May 7th. 

On poverty reduction  Nicola said, "I back Ed",  and Conservative HQ pumped the line on twitter to feed their narrative of fear about a Labour/SNP alliance.

When the SNP leader turned her fire on Miliband for backing Tory austerity plans her attack was cut short by ITV moderator Julia Etchingham.

But that not before the cameras caught David Cameron smiling to himself. The Tory strategy of setting the SNP against Labour was working fine for him.

Green leader Natalie Bennett tag -teamed with Sturgeon in the progressive alliance against austerity, attacking Miliband,  just as Cameron hoped they would.

"Cuts will have to come, "said Miliband. "But we can do it in a balanced way."

It was Nigel Farage threw the first punch, at Scotland. He complained that too much money was "going over Hadrian's Wall". 

Sturgeon hit back saying there were no problems that he wouldn't blame on foreigners. Farage shrugged that he wouldn't disagree, and that provided some humorous relief.

But then the UKIP leader engaged in low politics to talk about foreign patients with HIV being treated on the NHS.

Plaid's Leanne Wood, whose warmth won friends, brought him down. "This is dangerous, it stigmatises people and you should be ashamed of yourself," she said to the first outbreak of applause from the oh so quiet audience.

Miliband managed to land one NHS cuts  blow on David Cameron. "They believed you were another kind of Conservative," he said, and the sword connected.  

He had  bought two new pairs of shoes for the encounter, and well he might need them if he fails to come out ahead in the election. We know how time wounds all heels.

So, no clear victor, no gaffes,  no losers. But that smile of satisfaction from Cameron, as a left-leaning SNP leader went for the leader of the Labour Party, that was the moment that made Cameron the winner.