Comment: David Cameron speech double-edged sword?

Prime Minister David Cameron with First Minister Alex Salmond. Pic: Phil Wilkinson/TSPL
Prime Minister David Cameron with First Minister Alex Salmond. Pic: Phil Wilkinson/TSPL
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DAVID Cameron says in the programme for this weekend’s Scottish Conservative conference that he is “delighted” to be coming to Edinburgh for the annual gathering.

Of course, it would be a surprise if he said anything else.

But the Prime Minister’s feelings about venturing north of the Border for a high-profile appearance as the referendum campaign hots up must be mixed at the very least.

He chose London’s Olympic Park for his last speech on Scottish politics.

And earlier this year, he more or less accepted the proposition from Labour Scottish affairs select committee chairman Ian Davidson that “a Tory toff from the Home Counties” arguing against independence was guaranteed to be counter-productive. The Prime Minister told him: “I accept that my appeal does not stretch to all parts of Scotland.”

Mr Cameron is, however, treating this weekend’s conference as a major event. He knows the newly-awakened UK-wide media interest in the referendum will guarantee him widespread coverage for his message on independence at the conference tomorrow afternoon.

He may not be willing to face First Minister Alex Salmond in a one-to-one debate, but speaking in Edinburgh gives him the chance to try to land a few blows.

It will be quite different from the brief appearance Mr Cameron made at last year’s equivalent event in Stirling, where his speech was one of the first items on the agenda on Friday morning and he left almost immediately, meaning the highlight of the conference was over before some people had even arrived.

Tory insiders are upbeat about this weekend’s gathering. They say more than 1000 are expected to attend – far more than at any recent conference – and party activists are feeling motivated by the referendum campaign.

One source says: “A lot of our members are involved in both Conservative Friends of the Union and the Better Together campaign and they are pretty optimistic about the result.”

But whatever the conference does for party morale, the crucial question this time is whether it helps the No cause – and the risk is it could do more damage than good.

The conference comes as the anti-independence parties are under pressure to come up with a package of more powers for Holyrood as an alternative to independence. The Liberal Democrats reinforced their proposals for steps towards a federal UK with a call this week for a mini-constitutional convention to meet within 30 days of a No vote to discuss extending devolution. And Labour will debate the question of further powers for the Scottish Parliament at its conference next weekend.

But the Tories’ internal commission on the subject is not due to report until May.

And Ruth Davidson has made clear there is no prospect of a single package of more powers agreed by all three unionist parties before the referendum.

That may disappoint the enthusiasts who believe a united opposition is essential to maximise the No vote on September 18. But Ms Davidson’s position is the honest and realistic one – because the three parties do not really agree on the way forward if there is a No vote.

If the issue is aired at conference it could be seized on by critics as more evidence of Tories being out of touch. One way or another, Mr Cameron will probably breathe a sigh or relief when it’s all over.