How long will Alex Salmond’s honeymoon with the voters of Scotland continue? Given that
his next mission is to hold and win an independence referendum, much depends on his popularity and that of his party. Today, a third opinion poll puts support for the Scottish National Party at
just under half of the national electorate. Angus Reid, polling for the Sunday Express, puts support
for the SNP has now hit a remarkable 49 per cent. Given that the Nationalists only won 45 per cent of the votes in May’s election – enough to sweep all the unionist parties into the
background – this new high just shy of 50 per cent really does represent an extraordinary development in Scottish political terms.
The poll also shows how far the Liberal Democrats have fallen. Coalition with the Tories is not helping the Scottish Lib Dems, who saw their support collapse to 5 per cent in the poll – just
above the "others" on four per cent. The Scottish Tories, whose brand is so damaged that it is considering renaming, are on 13 per cent. Labour are on 29 per cent. The Lib Dems knew
they’d be punished for the sins of the coalition but, with local elections next year, this suggests that they could get hammered again then. This would leave them with very little in the way of
elected representation in Scotland. Danny Alexander will be looking at this very nervously indeed.
Support for independence is still far below support for the SNP, but has edged up from 35 per cent to about 39 per cent. If the Nationalists can get that figure to anything over 40 per cent then
the referendum result is definitely in the balance – if only because committed nationalists are more likely to vote in a referendum than status quo-backing unionists. And think about the
dynamics of the campaign itself: who would led the "no" campaign? Ed Miliband and David Cameron? So, while Mr Salmond cannot claim that independence looks likely, he can be forgiven for
thinking he can turn the polls around – as he did in last year’s Holyrood election. He declared today’s poll "fantastic" and claimed the SNP now had the support of half the
electorate. "With the Lib Dems relegated to minor party status and leadership contests causing confusion, both Labour and the Tories are on the run in Scotland." Even his enemies would
concede that he has a point. The parties’ popularity is in flux. But in leadership terms, there is no opposition to Mr Salmond in Scotland.
Labour are running a leadership contest that no-one, even in the party itself, appears to care about it. No-one seems to know who’s involved and, if they do, they don’t care. Former Labour Downing
Street John McTernan was forced to bemoan last week that the Tory furore over the scrapping of the Scottish Conservative Party had at least generated interest – something that was lacking in
the Labour campaign. The Lib Dems have had their leadership change, not that anyone has really noticed that either. While the Tories are so concerned with internal wrangling that they haven’t the
time or the inclination to look outside their own tent and see what is going on with the Government.
The scale of Conservative problems in Scotland was revealed in internal polling results publicised by Murdo Fraser (the leadership candidate who wants to disband the party) today. The poll,
conducted before May’s election, showed that only six per cent of voters believed the Scottish Tories put Scotland first. A total of 50 per cent thought the party put England first: evidence,
according to Mr Fraser, of how badly wrong the Tories have been getting it north of the border.
The result of all this is that Mr Salmond has been given a pretty straightforward easy ride since May’s election.
And how is Salmond doing? He launched his programme for government last week and it was one of mind-numbing dullness. The suspicion at Holyrood is that Mr Salmond is deliberately doing nothing to
cause any great problems or divisions so he can smooth the way for the one really important push – on independence.