Ian Swanson: Reshuffle rattling referendum sabres

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HE’S feisty, a bruiser, a political streetfighter and won’t take any nonsense from anyone. The write-ups for new Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael were topped only by the widely-used picture of him, complete with helmet, beard and mouth agape, dressed as a Viking for the Up Helly Aa festival in Shetland.

The message was clear: the reshuffle of Mr Carmichael from Liberal Democrat chief whip to replace Michael Moore at the Scotland Office marked the start of a more aggressive phase of the No campaign for next year’s independence referendum.

Mr Moore’s surprise sacking is harsh treatment for a man whom even political opponents describe as “a decent minister” and who is widely regarded as having done a good job
in the post.

But even leaving that aside, is a streetfighter really what is wanted at this stage?

It’s said Mr Carmichael will be better able to take on Alex Salmond as the referendum debate hots up. But the First Minister is a clever political operator and it has been observed before that for opposition politicians, trying to “out-Salmond Salmond” is not necessarily the most promising political tactic.

And when all parties insist they want to move away from yah-boo politics, is 11 months of political brawling the best that the two sides can offer in the run-up to the referendum?

Mr Moore has been widely praised for his work in negotiating the
Edinburgh Agreement, paving the way for the referendum to happen. He worked closely with Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in doing the vital groundwork for Mr Salmond and Prime Minister David Cameron to sign the deal, with which both sides declared themselves happy.

The Scottish Government got to set the date and extend the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds, the UK government ensured there would be no “more powers” option included on the ballot paper.

Mr Moore’s courteous style and diplomatic skills served everyone
well. However, now it seems the son of the manse is somehow judged too gentlemanly for the next phase of the campaign. Insiders in the Yes camp declare themselves baffled by the reshuffle.

With the polls giving the No side a clear lead, why should the man fronting the government’s efforts on the issue suddenly find himself out of a job?

“It sends out a strange message,” says one senior SNP source.

“People are scratching their heads and wondering what has he done wrong.”

Liberal Democrats insist there is no hidden agenda or internal party manoeuvrings behind Mr Moore’s dismissal. But there is a widespread sympathy for the Borders MP and a feeling he should have been given another ministerial job rather than being dispatched to the backbenches.

One senior Lib Dem insider paid tribute to the former Scottish Secretary’s “calm attitude in a febrile political atmosphere” but added he did not necessarily have the right “skill set” for the period from now to the referendum and beyond.

But as the referendum comes closer, it is more likely to be former Chancellor Alistair Darling, as leader of the cross-party Better Together campaign, who is at the forefront of the drive for a No vote. A Labour figurehead is going to be more help in defeating independence than anyone from the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition.

It seems therefore unnecessary, at the very least, that we should all be seeing less of Mr Moore.