John McTernan on Scottish reaction to Danny Alexander’s razor gang

A cruel truth of politics is that it is not enough to succeed; truly to get ahead one’s friends must fail. The extraordinarily swift fall of David Laws has ended whatever honeymoon the coalition might have had, but has accelerated the rise of Danny Alexander. His talent combined with his closeness to Nick Clegg have marked Alexander for long-term success. He now has one of the highest offices of state, at the most testing of times and faces the most difficult challenge within his own party – the Scottish Question.

The frame for next year’s Scottish Parliamentary elections is being constructed at the moment. For the SNP it will be a return to the general election claim that “more Nats means less cuts”. An unlikely proposition last month, it will seem even less persuasive next year. The eurozone’s struggles, coming so soon after  Ireland’s retrenchment and austerity, give the lie to the notion that there is an easy bolt hole anywhere outside the UK.

For Scottish Labour the story will be that they have come back to the people – refreshed and renewed by opposition, ready to reclaim the mantle of defenders of the nation. Super-reasonable Jim Murphy is a hard act for Iain Gray to follow, though, particularly without the platform and profile of Cabinet rank.

That much has been widely signalled and is well-known. What, though, of the coalition parties?

On the face of it, the Tories have the tougher task. Rejected repeatedly because of the legacy of the ‘Thatcher cuts’, they are about to be tied to a Tory-led administration that will make cuts that Thatcherite hawks could only have dreamt of.

They will be hoping that two factors will save them. First, that Cameron and Osborne will convince voters that this is Labour’s deficit and that every cut is to fill a ‘black hole’ left behind by Brown and Darling. It is a hard sell to make the case that Labour single-handedly caused a global downturn. However, the schoolboy error of Liam Byrne’s crass ‘there’s no money’ note to his successor as chief secretary gives the Tories a line to parrot for a long time. (Though perhaps coalition politicians won’t be quite so quick to juxtapose the phrase ‘shocking revelation’ and the name David Laws for a while.)

The second, and perhaps strongest, hope of the Tories must be that Michael Moore will be the fall guy for the cuts. After all, the Lib Dems are the face of the coalition in Scotland. And now Danny Alexander is personally going to lead the razor-gang through UK public spending. From Scotland’s man in the coalition to the coalition’s man in Scotland in one fell swoop. And Labour, in electoral competition with the Lib Dems in a number of seats, will seek to prosecute this case with vigour.

So will the fall of Danny Alexander’s party be the consequence of his rise? Not necessarily. For all the huff and puff of both Labour and the nationalists, the reality is that both will be looking to the Lib Dems as potential coalition partners after the 2011 elections. Both will pull their punches – trash a relationship in haste, repent at your leisure (and on the opposition benches).

Of course, the brutality of inter-party relations is one of the iron laws of politics, and only a fool would take it to heart – it’s not personal, it’s just business.

But another fundamental political principle is that governments in trouble dip into the pork-barrel. How much can it cost to keep Scotland sweet? We’ve already seen signals on the fossil fuel levy – what’s a couple of hundred million between friends? And how much more is really needed? Just enough to save face for the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

So Danny Alexander may, in fact, be the luckiest man in Scottish politics. He has the opportunity to demonstrate that he deserves his place in the front rank of the rising generation. And, with judicious identification of strategic priorities, he can save his party in Scotland from reaping the consequences of aligning themselves with Cameron and Osborne. So potentially everyone can win. Except, of course, the Tories. Their role as the scapegoat of Scottish politics looks likely to run and run.

John McTernan was political secretary to Tony Blair and an adviser to scottish ministers

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