Rivals to Salmond’s throne may be looking for a miracle

Is it time to call Salmond's bluff on more devolution?
Is it time to call Salmond's bluff on more devolution?
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After a blistering year in politics for the SNP, Ian Swanson looks at how well equipped the other Scottish parties are to do battle

As Alex Salmond looks forward to 2012, he could be forgiven for feeling he is monarch of all he surveys. The surprise overall majority he secured in the Holyrood elections last May has left the First Minister free to rule more or less as he wishes.

There could be no repeat now of the opposition parties combining to force him to fund the Edinburgh trams as they did in 2007.

Mr Salmond has a Westminster-style free hand, unprecedented under devolution, to pursue the policies he promised at the elections without having to compromise or do deals to win the support of other parties.

But in a curious way the transition from minority to majority government has also left the Nationalists vulnerable. They can still point the finger at London and the UK coalition government’s economic policies as the cause of problems in Scotland, but the other option of blaming the opposition parties here for blocking SNP policies has gone.

And the sheer number of SNP MSPs and the absence of any fear of losing votes in the chamber must increase the risk of rebellion from within.

Two factors are likely to dominate the political scene in 2012, the grim economic situation – with large numbers of Scots, particularly young people, unemployed and continuing cuts to public services – and the whole question of Scotland’s constitutional future, with the SNP’s promised referendum on independence looming on the horizon.

Almost everything the Scottish Government does is done with independence in mind. The SNP showed voters in its first term that it can govern, now it needs to convince them of the merits of Scotland going its own way.

And the tantalising prospect of that prize of independence is enough to maintain discipline inside the party and keep any potential rebels in check.

“No-one would be forgiven if they spoiled things now,” says a senior source.

The local elections across Scotland in May – now “decoupled” from the parliament elections – will be a big test of whether the SNP is still riding high in public popularity, five years after taking power at Holyrood.

The expectation at the moment is the Nationalists will do well – their big target is to seize Glasgow from Labour – and that will consolidate Mr Salmond’s power further.

The elections are an even more crucial test for the opposition parties, all still bruised from their encounter with the voters last May.

The Conservatives are beginning to settle down after the bitter leadership contest, which saw Murdo Fraser’s radical plan for starting a new party thrown out by the Tory rank and file and brand new MSP Ruth Davidson elected to take over from Annabel Goldie.

Ms Davidson’s first few performances at First Minister’s Questions have been branded “disappointing” and there has been some whispering about her not surviving as leader to take the party into the next Holyrood elections in 2016.

But a Tory insider says: “She’s digging in and the party establishment is digging in with her. Unless there’s a disastrous election result before then, I don’t see her going.”

The insider points out that next year’s local elections and the 2014 European elections are both likely to see low turn-outs, which benefits the Tories because their supporters are better at making it to the polling station. “Our vote may be small, but it turns out,” he says.

The Westminster elections in 2015 will be a bigger challenge. The Tories need to improve on their current single seat at Westminster, and the proposed boundary changes do create some possible gains for them. If there is no progress then, Ms Davidson could find herself in trouble, but it will be too close to the 2016 Holyrood poll for any challenge to her position.

New Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie, who has made a name for himself in taking on Mr Salmond despite having only four other MSPs behind him, will use 2012 to pursue his party’s “Home Rule” theme, carefully balancing loyalty to his UK colleagues with the desire to be more radical on the constitution. But the Lib Dems are set for a fresh battering in the council elections and seem resigned to the fact that, as long as they are in bed with the Tories at Westminster – and probably for long afterwards – they will not be winning many friends or votes.

Labour’s Johann Lamont has not had much chance to make her mark since being elected to replace Iain Gray just before the Christmas recess.

But she arguably faces the biggest challenge of all the Scottish party leaders. Trying to restore the shattered fortunes of a party which so recently took its pre-eminence in Scottish politics as a given is a tall order for anyone.

Critics point out that, as deputy to Mr Gray, Ms Lamont is implicated in the disastrous election campaign that saw Labour crash to humiliating defeat with just 15 constituency MSPs compared with 53 in 1999 and relying on the top-up list to bring it up to its total of 37 against the SNP’s 69.

However, in her acceptance speech after being elected, Ms Lamont acknowledged that Labour had “let Scotland down” and signalled an eagerness to make amends, saying: “Nothing will be off limits - there will not be one policy, one rule, one way of working which cannot be changed.”

But the very fact Labour feels the need for such fundamental re-examination underlines the scale of the rebuilding exercise it faces.

As with the Tories, critics speculate about whether Ms Lamont will still be leader by the next election, but she has to be given a chance to show she can get Labour back on track.

The more serious question is, even if Ms Lamont survives in post until 2016, will she ever become First Minister? The way things stand at the moment, it would surely need a miracle for the party to be in shape to win back power next time.