By Tim Montgomerie
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Alex Salmond announced the date on which the Scottish people will decide whether or not to remain members of the UK – September 18th 2014. It doesn't look like he'll be successful if you believe the opinion polls. Most surveys suggest a stable and significant lead for the Better Together campaign being co-ordinated by Labour's Alistair Darling. Here's the polling carried out by Ipsos-MORI:
Mr Salmond will be hoping for some kind of re-run of the last Holyrood elections when the SNP came from behind and won an overall majority. We also know that referenda aren't often or largely about the specific question on the ballot paper. On this occasion Scotland's First Minister will try and put the Tories on the ballot paper. Part of the reason the SNP have chosen a date so close to the next UK-wide general election is that they want to make it a vote about Tory rule from London versus SNP/Labour rule from Edinburgh. Salmond's message will be that Cameron and Osborne might win again in what will then be six months' time and the only way of being protected from the dastardly things that they plan will be to have an independent Scotland.
Mr Darling is aware of this. David Cameron is aware of this. And we shouldn't therefore expect Tories to play a particularly prominent part in the referendum campaign. Mr Cameron and Ruth Davidson will need to do enough to ensure that the Tory vote is mobilised but they won't be the public faces of the campaign. Mr Darling is likely to fight a campaign that might be a preview of the model of campaign that the pro-EU lobby will fight to keep Britain in the other Union. Scots will be warned that they'll lose access to the NHS, the BBC, the Bank of England's rescue facilities and other great shared resources if they vote to sever ties with London. Labour's former Chancellor will hope that these worries will be enough to ensure that the traditional pattern of referenda – a swing to the status quo – will occur in this vote too – and will counter Mr Salmond's expected attempts to whip up Scottish sentiments in the aftermath of next summer's Commonwealth Games in Glasgow (where Scots compete as Scots rather than as part of any Team GB).
If Mr Darling wins the campaign there might well be a clamour for him to become Ed Miliband's Shadow Chancellor. George Osborne may not be the most popular of Chancellors but he's helped by the fact that Ed Balls is even less popular. A new YouGov poll finds that Osborne is preferred by 31% to Mr Balls' 25%. Replacing Ed Balls might produce a civil war inside Labour but Darling might bring the gravitas to the Labour frontbench that it currently lacks. Lord Mandelson made a pretty uncoded attack on Labour's economic policies overnight. The former chief Labour strategist argued “we need to focus on how to redevelop our economy rather than fight about the past and fight about what’s too far and what’s far enough. The Labour party has got to offer more than that.”
Anyhow – once the Scottish referendum is out of the way we could perhaps have a little more attention on England from the Tory leadership. The Barnett formula needs to be readdressed – not least because of the way it discriminates against Wales – and it's time for English votes for English laws.