By Tim Montgomerie
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Why does Alex Salmond want to hold the independence referendum in the latter part of 2014?
One simple answer. He wants to turn the vote into a referendum on the Conservatives. He wants the referendum to be as close as possible to the 2015 general election and he secretly hopes that opinion polls will then suggest that there's a good chance that the Conservative Party might be returned to power. The canny SNP leader wants the Scottish people to go into the polling booths and vote against the prospect of ever being ruled by 'Tory England' ever again. He doesn't want voters to see the choice as being between an independent Scotland and the United Kingdom but as being between guaranteeing a Left-wing, progressive Scotland (to summarise the parlance he'll use) and Thatcherite, leave-the-poor behind Tory rule (to continue the caricature).
Many referenda aren't really decided on the question asked on the ballot paper but by other issues. This Scottish vote may not be so different.
A new Panelbase survey – reported in today's Sunday Times (£) – confirms that the strategy might have some legs. The Panelbase survey of nearly 1,000 eligible Scots found that independence is rejected if the question is asked straightforwardly but is embraced if voters are told that the Tories may stay in charge of the UK:
In his keynote speech to the SNP Conference yesterday Mr Salmond was playing up attacks on David Cameron. After ridiculing George Osborne over the much-misreported Virgin trains story, Scotland's First Minister declared:
"Why on earth do we allow this incompetent bunch of Lord Snooties to be in positions of authority over our country? …Westminster would put this first class nation in the second class carriages."
Nicola Sturgeon was doing the same today but Ms Sturgeon's suggestion that Scottish Labour was just another Tory Party sounded silly to me. I suspect it sounds silly to most Scots too. It's probably the best strategy the SNP have but it's also possible it stretches credibility too far and will backfire.