Ian Swanson: A year is a long time in politics

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THIS time last year, Alex Salmond was First Minister of a minority SNP government that looked as if its days were numbered.

With the Scottish Parliament elections less than six months away, the polls had Labour ten points ahead and even some SNP ministers were privately said to have accepted they would not be in their jobs much longer.

How quickly things change. The May elections saw the Nationalists surge to an unprecedented overall majority of seats at Holyrood. Labour and the other parties were trounced and Mr Salmond secured his crown.

The 2011 elections were always going to be important, marking either the end of Scotland’s experiment with its first SNP administration and a return to the familiarity of Labour rule or a vote of confidence in Mr Salmond and his colleagues for their performance over the previous four years and a fresh rejection of Labour.

The election campaign – which now seems so long ago – offered its fair share of entertainment, if not enlightenment.

Labour got off to a bad start when its manifesto launch at Clydebank College was interrupted by a fire alarm and everyone had to be evacuated. The party’s campaign was effectively ended a few weeks later by the images of leader Iain Gray taking cover in a coffee shop after being confronted by protesters on a visit to Glasgow Central station.

The Tories’ Annabel Goldie ran a typically feisty campaign, though some wondered if she was going too far when she told the audience at one televised debate where she appeared alongside Messrs Salmond and Gray: “The question is, who’s going to keep one of these two under control and grab them by the short and curlies?”

Lib Dem Tavish Scott knew his party’s coalition deal with the Tories at Westminster was a problem, but he insisted the media had predicted the Lib Dems’ demise many times before, only to be proved wrong. Nick Clegg made one visit to Edinburgh during the campaign – Mr Scott accompanied him to a business breakfast, but then had a prior engagement back in his constituency and unfortunately could not join the UK leader for the rest of his visit.

The SNP’s campaign was slick and successful. Mr Salmond looked uncomfortable when he was put on the spot over using taxpayers’ money to fight a ruling from the Information Commissioner that the Scottish Government should not withhold estimates of how much a Local Income Tax would cost – but it seemed not to make much difference to public perceptions.

There were warning signs for Labour early on. Despite poll guru Peter Kellner declaring that polls showed political leaders were now “less trusted and less respected than at any time in living memory”, one survey found Mr Salmond had an approval rating of an astonishing +17, way ahead Labour’s Iain Gray, who scored +5 (David Cameron was at +1 and Nick Clegg down at -29).

But the scale of the SNP’s victory was still a shock. One senior Labour MSP with a big majority insisted ahead of the campaign that he wasn’t being complacent but observed: “If I lose my seat we really are in trouble.” He did and they were.

The SNP seemed as surprised by the result as everyone else – and not quite sure how to cope with a new world where they can do virtually whatever they wanted without fear of the opposition parties ganging up to defeat them.

Tavish Scott was the first of the losing leaders to quit. The Lib Dems collapsed from 16 MSPs to just five and although everyone knew it was largely down to events at Westminster, Mr Scott did not hang about. His place was quickly taken by Willie Rennie, a new MSP but an experienced operator as well as a champion coal-carrier.

Iain Gray felt he had to accept responsibility for Labour’s disastrous result and step down – despite plenty Labour people arguing it wasn’t all his fault and he was still the best leader they had.

Annabel Goldie, who had said during the campaign that she wanted to stay on, also fell on her sword. Her exit paved the way for a bruising battle to succeed her. New MSP Ruth Davidson, a protege of the departing leader, was going to be the modernising candidate holding out the prospect of a bright new future for the Tories.

But she was upstaged even before she could get her campaign off the ground when Murdo Fraser stepped forward to declare the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party was not fit for purpose and had no future in its present form. He wanted to start again, adopt a new name and attract new supporters. The contest that followed saw some harsh exchanges, but resulted in a victory for Ms Davidson.

Labour’s succession battle was less acrimonious and got far less coverage. Glasgow MP Tom Harris helped liven it up with controversial comments but he was never going to win. The fight was always between former deputy leader Johann Lamont and Eastwood MSP Ken Macintosh.

With Ms Lamont’s election at the weekend and her debut appearance at First Minister’s Questions tomorrow, the political “stars” are now lined up for another unpredictable year.