“Would you like a glass of pink champagne?” asks Alex Salmond at 3.30pm, sounding very much like a man settling down for the afternoon. It’s Monday and Scotland’s former First Minister has cause to celebrate. He spent the previous day musing on television about the price he’d demand for the SNP supporting Ed Miliband in the House of Commons, and his thoughts dominate the front pages of the newspapers. There’s plenty of outrage at the idea of the SNP toying with England, and outrage is exactly what Salmond wanted. So champagne it is.
Salmond has found himself an unlikely star of the Tory election campaign; the party this week released a cartoon showing his playing the whistle while Miliband dances. “I hesitate to offer any advice to Ed Miliband,” he says, “but next time he gets teased or attacked by the Tories for getting into Downing Street with the support of the nasty Nats, he should say: ‘the Prime Minister has just conceded the election. We now know that I’m going to Downing St, it’s merely a question of how I’m getting there.’” Tory attacks need not be scary if ‘handled properly,’ he says – Miliband just needs better advice.
He expects to be offering this advice fairly soon, especially if Miliband needs SNP support to command a majority in the Commons. His successor, Nicola Sturgeon, has been busy destroying the Scottish Labour Party after holding on to almost all of the 45 per cent of Scots who voted ‘yes’ last September. Polls suggest the SNP will take 39 of Labour’s 41 Scottish seats, becoming the third-largest party in Westminster. In a hung parliament, they could be the ones deciding who governs Britain.
What happens then? “Nicola is the party leader and makes these decisions,” says Salmond. But she has ruled out any deal with the Tories. “The SNP approach to a Cameron minority government will be to bring it down,” he says cheerily.
“If the Conservatives are in a position of trying to form an administration, then we will vote against a Queen’s Speech. And if Labour want them out, and they don’t want a majority, all they have to do is join us. So that’s Cameron shut out. Then we come to Labour.” A “possible” arrangement is confidence and supply, he says: ie, the SNP and Labour would strike a deal whereby the nationalist MPs side with Labour in every vote. But “a probable arrangement” would be where the SNP decide on an issue-by-issue basis whether to back Labour.
But he skips over the part where the SNP actually put a Labour government in place by voting for its Queen’s Speech. He has hinted that there would be a price to be paid for that: what if Ed Miliband refuses to pay his price? Would the SNP then refuse to support Labour – and put in the Tories by default? Is that the threat it is making? And if not, does he have any bargaining power at all?
“Absolutely,” he says. “The alternative to doing a deal is not doing a deal” – in other words, leave Labour to form a minority government and then exploit its weakness. The SNP, he says, could insert amendments into legislation on certain issues even joining forces with Tories if needs be. “I’ve given the example of starting fast rail from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Newcastle,” he says. He thinks such a scheme could be forced upon Labour by a “majority of the house: not just the Conservative party, Liberal Democrats, Labour MPs from Newcastle. People like that.”
He mentions transport for a reason. When he was leading a minority government in the Scottish Parliament, his opponents ganged up on him over the Edinburgh tram. “The Labour party and Lib Dems combined in a mood of national coalition to outvote my sensible suggestion that we might be better with environmentally-friendly buses than with a £600 million tram system. So we were beaten on the trams. Did we say “Oh my goodness me, we ‘d better have an election on the trams!”
His point: not every vote is a survival vote. He can defeat Miliband in the Commons and not bring a Labour government down. “You can amend a budget. You can amend anything in the House of Commons if you choose to do so – and I’m saying we could win amendments. All you need is to find something really unpopular which you stop, or something that is really progressive and popular that you get through.” And if he can win such small victories, the SNP would support Miliband’s overall Budget (end, ergo, ensure his survival as Prime Minister). “As long as we get our amendments through, what difficulty would we have with the budget?”
So what does he have in mind? What might his shopping list include? “There are many many things. Whisky tax for example: far too high and for far too long. And Osborne, with that lily-livered 2p [tax cut] offer: no, we’re fine, thank you. Look there are many things in the budget that I would like to change, I’ve moved so many budget amendments to Westminster in my life: I’m forever doing it. Now I’ll be able to move them with the prospect of success.”
So this is how Salmond sees the next parliament working out: the SNP not as anyone’s coalition partners but as political guerillas, deciding when to pounce. He’d be keen to see Ed Miliband in power, but it would look less like partnership and more like a Stephen King novel with Miliband tied to his parliamentary bed by the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. This piece of legislation is a key part of Salmond’s sadistic apparatus: it denies the Prime Minister the power to threaten a new election as he’d need the support of two-thirds of the House (ie, the support of the Tories). And what Tory opposition leader would want to put a tortured Miliband out of his misery?
The Fixed-Term Parliament Act, says Salmond, is “a great piece of legislation – I love it to bits. Amazingly enough, the people who passed it don’t seem to have read it!” Its effect, he says, is to make it “almost impossible to hold another election” before five long years are out because the timing of an election will never suit both of the two largest parties. “If somebody’s up and wants an election, it means the other lot are down and don’t. So it’s difficult always to get a majority in a no-majority situation for another election.” Also, he adds, MPs don’t like the idea of a fresh election – especially those in vulnerable seats. “So I don’t think there will be another election.”
Salmond is already adopting the language of minority government politics: a successful SNP-led ambush in parliament is billed as act of cross-party consensus. “The Parliament Act does give tremendous scope for having a consensus government,” he says – ie, the Prime Minister will have to yield to rebels again and again. All this means the SNP will be able to deliver “a great deal for the people of Scotland, and for the progressive forces across these islands.” And how many people do you think will be toasting him in the pubs of Essex? “You know, I think I could rival that pub landlord guy,” he says. Al Murray? Rival him how? He doesn’t say.
But the English would not mind the SNP’s intervention very much, he says. He asks his assistant, sitting with us, to fetch some polls showing Ms Sturgeon as the most popular – or, rather, the least unpopular – party leader in England. Unionists, he says, have no grounds to complain about the SNP helping to govern England.
“They wanted us to play a full part as equal partners in the UK. And now, when we’re about to play a full part, some people start complaining about it. For goodness sake! Can’t they make up their minds? Do they want us here or not?”
The popularity figures he mentions show Ed Milband being far more unpopular in Scotland than David Cameron. How, I ask, can the SNP justify setting their face against the Westminster leader who polls best in Scotland?
“Because Scots still prefer a Lab/SNP government, and by a fairly overwhelming majority,” he says. It sounds as if his mind is made up: the SNP wants to spend the next five years time amending legislation of a Labour government. I have tried asking a few times if that means SNP support for Miliband is already in the bag, but he deftly avoids answering. He’s an old master at playing cat-and-mouse with journalists, so I give up. I tell him that I have failed as a journalist to prise an answer out of him. “Yes, but you have succeeded as a human being,” he says. He invites me to have another go. I put to him that the the ‘wins’ for Scotland that he envisages lie in the Amendments. But when it comes to actually working out who’s going to be in power, he would vote in a way that made sure that David Cameron did not get in.” “Correct,” he says. “We would lock him out of Downing Street”. “You would lock him out of Downing St, regardless of whether you had a formal deal with Labour to do that?” “Correct.”
This is a new development and – for the Tories – a deeply unwelcome one. The SNP had, until now, been talking about doing a deal with Labour in return for its support and the Tories hoped that such a deal might fail. But as Salmond has just admitted, the SNP wants to enstool Miliband as Prime Minister anyway. Its preference, he says, is to support Labour “vote by vote”. There are survival votes for any minority government, as he knows having led one in Edinburgh. I ask what they are. “The budget, basically. Also, keeping your ministers – unless you choose not to keep them.” So on these survival issues, I ask for a third time, ‘you would vote in a way that would lock the Conservatives out – regardless of whether you had an understanding with Miliband?”
“Correct. But I think the Labour position would be capable of sensible progressive amendment – with our progressive allies of course, Plaid Cymru and the Greens.”
Other than the word ‘correct’ he doesn’t have much to say about his party’s new position: that the SNP has decided to prop up Ed Miliband no matter what – its aim is to play guerilla politics, to have weak that it can gently torture. And given that the SNP’s wider agenda is to stoke up support for independence then hold a referendum when the time is right, his strategy makes sense. If Salmond’s wider agenda is to prove that Westminster doesn’t work, Miliband is his man.