Salmond makes a comeback

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The Independent Online
WHO WILL govern Scotland after next Thursday? Voters may despair of the too-long election campaign, but for the three main parties there is still all to play for.

Recent polls have shown Labour winning anything from 55 to 63 seats in the 129-member parliament, the SNP from the mid-30s to 48, the Lib Dems 12 to 18, and the Tories up to 13.

Who governs Scotland will probably depend on whether, as one seasoned election observer put it, "Jim Wallace has Donald [Dewar] by the balls" or whether Labour has sufficient seats to risk minority government. The metaphor sits strangely with the mild-mannered leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, but if he wins a block of around 16 seats, Mr Wallace could exert a powerful influence.

Mr Dewar has been careful to keep his options open. Pressed last week on whether a Lab-Lib coalition had been stitched up at the Blair-Ashdown meeting at the home of Derry Irvine, now the Lord Chancellor, in 1996, Mr Dewar vigorously denied there had been any deal.

Mr Blair favours a coalition at Holyrood - it would help to check left- wingers who slipped through the party's candidate screening process - but Mr Dewar has given no nods in that direction. Translated from Secretary of State to First Minister of Scotland, he is expected to be more his own man.

Public policy in Scotland and England could increasingly diverge. Mr Dewar could be forced to accept the abolition of tuition fees for Scottish students, and Mr Blair would have to lump it as education is the business of Edinburgh.

The Scottish leader is also keener than Downing Street to meet the concerns of public service unions over private funding of schools, hospitals and housing. He promised workers' pay and conditions would be protected, and on Friday his ministerial ally Sam Galbraith insisted there would be no agreement over the pounds 183m project to build and run the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary if workers' pension rights were denied.

Newly risen, Alex Salmond is talking up his chances of storming to victory. A week ago, the Nationalist cause was in the mire, with voters confused by Mr Salmond's condemnation of Nato bombing, his extra-tax gamble, and soft pedalling on independence. Stung by media obituaries, the SNP leader cancelled press conferences and took to the streets. Now the Kosovo outburst is largely forgotten and all that lingers is the unmistakable burr of Sean Connery asserting his Scottishness at an invitation-only rally.

The campaign has not been good mannered. Audiences have been appalled by the point-scoring of broadcast debates. Mr Dewar spotted the danger and tried to calm things down. "People will despair if we just shout at each other like this," he said. But to no avail. One candidate in the Highlands said the biggest gripe was "That it's just going to be another lot of blathering politicians". That at least is certain.

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