Whichever way the Scottish independence vote swings, the result will have a significant impact on England and Wales. But as David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg rush to drop a “love bomb” on Scottish voters in a last ditch attempt to stave off a Yes vote, they are putting their own futures on the line. But one of them has more to lose than the others.
For many reasons, the situation is bad for all of three party leaders. They’ve suspended normal business at Westminster and are taking a big gamble by knocking on the doors of referendum voters. Being rebuffed after declaring undying love is a blow to the reputation of any suitor and indeed, none of these leaders would come out of it looking good in the eyes of English and Welsh voters. That might not be a problem for them in the lead-up to the general election if they all suffered equally but that is unlikely to happen. David Cameron would most likely be the hardest hit by a Yes vote.
This is true for two reasons, one relates to voters in general and the other to the internal politics of the Conservative party.
As prime minister, Cameron is more visible than Clegg and Miliband. He speaks for the UK as a whole – at least for now – so losing part of the country could be a landmark moment for him. And recent history tells us that it can be very difficult for an incumbent to recover from a crisis.
We can get some idea of what this might mean from Gordon Brown’s experience after he took over from Tony Blair in July of 2007.
In September 2007, 40% of voters thought Gordon Brown was the best choice for prime minister among the party leaders. He was two months into his tenure and far outstripped David Cameron in public opinion polls. Just 19% of voters backed the Conservative leader. But within just six months, the figures had nearly reversed themselves. In March 2008, just 24% supported Brown while 33% backed Cameron.
Two things happened over those six months that appear to have sealed Brown’s fate. First, the run on the Northern Rock bank sent a clear signal to voters about the approaching recession, then he made a botch of dampening speculation about the chances of him calling an early election. Brown allowed rumours to swirl for so that when he finally confirmed that he would not bring polling day forward, it appeared to be a reaction to his drastically declining popularity.
Nothing that David Cameron did as leader of the opposition during this six-month period explains his rising popularity. It was the prime minister stumbling badly in the eyes of the public that turned opinion. A similar thing could happen to Cameron if Scotland votes Yes.
The internal politics of the Conservative party are relevant too, since many Tory backbenchers have not forgiven Cameron for failing to win an outright majority in 2010. The loss of Scotland would, after all, be a blow of historical proportions to what was once called the Conservative and Unionist Party.
Eurosceptics in particular will be emboldened and we may well see them demanding a promise that Britain will leave the EU if it fails to win concessions in renegotiations with Brussels. There might even be a move to oust him altogether – this would have to take place at the party conference if a new leader is to be in place in time for the election campaign.
The loss of Scotland would of course be a blow to Miliband and Clegg too, largely for electoral reasons. Labour has 41 seats in Scotland and the Liberal Democrats have 11 – all of which would ultimately be lost. But these losses will only be felt after Scottish independence is complete and won’t change the number of seats contested in the May election.
All three leaders have faced derision for failing to act sooner and dropping everything at the last minute to canvass on the streets of Scottish towns. But David Cameron faces the most immediate problem: if the vote is Yes, then Scotland would be lost on his watch.