Amid the Labour-dominated headlines this morning on the first day of the party’s autumn conference in Liverpool, something else caught my eye. The Independent on Sunday had a story about David Cameron tackling Alex Salmond head on. It read:
David Cameron is to go head to head with Alex Salmond in a bitter battle over the future of the union between England and Scotland.
The Government is to fight what it sees as “outrageous” claims and increasingly aggressive moves towards complete self-rule from the Scottish First Minister in a desperate attempt to stop Scotland from “sleepwalking into independence”.
This new more aggressive strategy has already been in action for a few weeks now, hence speeches by both Danny Alexander and Michael Moore, his successor as Scottish secretary, a few weeks ago, making the case for the union.
But so far, it is showing little sign of working. Government ministers really want Alex Salmond to enter the debate, making it look like a two way conversation rather than a one-sided attack from Westminster. Unsurprisingly, Salmond is not doing that.
One senior Lib Dem recently told me they were worried that the longer the debate dragged on, the more inevitable independence would seem. The government would much rather have an immediate referendum, but knows that imposing one from London would only help the nationalist cause.
Salmond has recently been touting a third option on the independence referendum ballot sheet, for fiscal autonomy without full independence. MPs are referring to this as “independence lite”, but what many Lib Dems are really worried about is that Salmond will start referring to it as “home rule”, a long-standing Liberal policy in Ireland which bears remarkable similiarities to Salmond’s third option.
The Lib Dems, like the Tories and Labour, worry that a vote for this third option would make independence look even more inevitable. But the party leadership knows that if Salmond starts calling it home rule they are going to have a tough task of explaining why they oppose it.