Tories keep cool about 'meltdown'

SCOTLAND
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Indy Politics
Tony Blair might usefully have been reminded of the medieval truism "whoever holds Stirling controls the nation" before uttering his ill-judged remarks on sovereignty remaining with English MPs after devolution.

The strategic fortress with its rolling rural hinterland is high on Labour's target list. It is the seventh most vulnerable Tory seat in Britain and its capture would deliver the head of the Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth.

But he has been written off twice before at Stirling and after the Labour leader's belittlement of a Scottish parliament it could be third time lucky for the tartan Thatcherite.

Mr Blair's remarks seemed almost designed to alienate the wavering voters the party in Scotland needs to attract - people who have voted SNP in the past but are thinking of voting tactically for Labour to get the Tories out.

"Today we are reaching out to nationalist voters dispirited by the nationalist leadership over supporting Labour's Scottish parliament," Henry McLeish, the party's Scottish campaign co-ordinator told the press on the morning before Mr Blair arrived.

Within hours the appeal look pretty forlorn. Mr Blair handed the SNP a gift, enabling it to elbow its way back into media prominence. The claim by the leader, Alex Salmond, that Labour had "ditched devolution" suddenly gained credibility. The Edinburgh parliament was going to have no more clout than an English parish council with Mr Blair vetoing the use of even its modest tax varying powers.

Mr Forsyth must have smiled for about the first time in a fortnight. The Tory campaign began disastrously with the former minister Allan Stewart and the Scottish party chairman, Sir Michael Hirst, quitting after allegations about their private lives and factional squabbling.

But after Mr Blair's gaffe, talk of a "meltdown" of the Scottish Tory party began look melodramatic and it was possible to believe even the studied optimism of Mr Forsyth's team in Stirling.

Labour needs a swing of only 0.3 per cent to unseat the Secretary of State - a switch of 237 votes. Its candidate, Anne McGuire, 47-year old deputy director of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, sounded confident before her leader's visit but emphasised the importance of winning over nationalists.

The SNP came a fairly distant third in Stirling in 1992 with 13.7 per cent of the vote. Natural SNP supporters I spoke to in the street were torn between staying loyal and voting for an "English" Labour Party to get rid of the Tories. Mr Forsyth's campaigners play heavily upon a grudging respect across the political spectrum for his promotion of the town's economy. As one of the team put it: "There's this view, 'Well, he may be a wee shite but he works hard for the constituency'."

However any resurgence of support for the SNP at Labour's expense would dismay his Cabinet colleague, Ian Lang, who has the nationalists breathing down his neck in Galloway and Upper Nithsdale. High public profiles count and Mr Lang's has suffered since switching in 1995 from being Secretary of State for Scotland to President of the Board of Trade.

The greatest imponderable is the strength, or otherwise, of the Tory vote. Privately, officials in all four parties have not expected more than half a dozen of Scotland's 72 parliamentary seats to change hands and several will be as a result of boundary changes rather than campaigning. The Ayr seat of Tory backbencher Phil Gallie is already notionally Labour's and on paper Malcolm Bruce, the Lib-Dems Treasury spokesman, has lost Gordon to the Conservatives.

Alex Salmond's tenure as leader of the SNP will be in jeopardy if after seven years in the job he does not increase the party's representation at Westminster.

He has sounded as pugnacious as ever, but the first-past-the-post system plays particularly badly for the SNP. It is Scotland's second most popular party, generally at about 25 per cent in the polls, behind Labour on 48 per cent, and a third of the population say they want independence, yet it had only four MPs in the last parliament.

Scots Tories will measure the result on 1 May in the fates of their three Cabinet ministers - Forsyth, Lang and Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, who could be unseated by a 4.5 per cent swing to Labour in Edinburgh Pentlands. The loss of all three would devastate the party north of the border.

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