We learned two things today. One, that David Cameron is a coward. Two, that the No campaign isn’t nearly as sure of itself as it likes to pretend.
The latter is the more significant because it could have a lasting impact as Scots realise –all Scots– that the Unionist champion hasn’t the stomach for the fight. He says he has of course, but here in turning down a televised debate, is proof positive that Cameron’s clever words cannot be trusted and when presented with a challenge, he will blink and back down.
This, remember, was the man who used an appalling personal tragedy to pledge a commitment to the health service, a pledge he has systematically broken.
He is a bunker PM, happy to sit in the Quad in London dictating political strategy to Osborne, Moore and Alexander, dispensing instructions to each and every department of state to devise schemes to defeat independence, and when asked to step outside, asks his mate to fight for him while he holds the jackets.
All nationalists should cheer with derision the man who holds all the powers over them and who sits at the pinnacle of the Union but hasn’t got it in him to face up to the cameras alongside his opponent…this, the man who was ready to send others into a real war in Syria. But even a war of words is too much for Brave Dave. He has wriggled out like a Bullingdon Boy squirming when the Master comes calling after complaints from the police over a wrecked dining room. “Not me, old boy. It’s Boris you’re after.”
Having the measure of your opponent is half the battle. Knowing that any vainglorious statement he makes about straining every sinew for the Union is bluster, opens the door to more vigorous and enthusiastic campaigning for a Yes.
He was prepared to intervene and threaten like an Eton bully with his gang of legal lackeys when he wanted his way over the legality of the referendum but where is the follow-through? Faced alone by a bigger boy, a smarter opponent, contemplating a humiliating beating this time, he did what all bullies eventually do – he backed down.
This should put air in the independence movement and bring home the truth – that for all the patronising, dismissive comments and promises to fight to the bitter end, they haven’t the will. If their leader folds as easily as this, their case is a house of cards.
And consider, too that if the head of the British Government wishes to slink away from the confrontation, then he should delegate his deputy in Scotland, Michael Moore, to take his place. A moment’s reflection on the quality of the Scottish Secretary will resolve why that isn’t going to happen. But it should. Cameron could have made a plausible case that “Scotland’s man in the Cabinet” is the right opponent, representing the UK government, a Scot holding a Scottish seat. It is a naked mark of how short the Unionists are of genuine political talent that proposing Moore is a non-starter…for Cameron and for the broadcasters.
Of course, Salmond should now debate with Darling. He will be able to ask him which of the current unionist government’s policies he approves of and ask him how much power he himself holds in the British Government. If none, then what he is he doing debating on an issue which can only be resolved by the British Government?
Historians will marvel at how a Conservative Prime Minister allowed a Labour backbencher to take his place in what may prove the defining event in the campaign to save Britain. They will deduce that Cameron lacked the skills and heart for the job of taking on the First Minister and that Salmond was handed a victory by default. The pressure is now piled inexorably on Darling who has been given a soft landing by the media so far and who looks flustered the more he is questioned.
And never again should any Yes supporter accept questions demanding information and answers from those whose chief spurned the single best platform for providing information.
To be clear, the undisputed line-up between protagonists in terms of convention is as follows. First Minister v Prime Minister, (poss. Equivalent Secretary of State for Scotland); Chairman of Yes Campaign (Canavan) v Chairman of No Campaign (Darling); chief executive of Yes Campaign (Jenkins) v chief executive of No Campaign (McDougall). It is not disputed and it is the protocol the BBC would normally follow.
Lastly, as a journalist, let me make a plea to all those engaged in my trade. Any attempt by editors or commentators to pretend that Cameron’s actions today were not an abrogation of responsibility will shame the independence of their paper. I accept that an editorial line is taken by editors for one side or another, but if anyone commenting contrives an excuse about it not being the PM’s job to lead the movement to save the union, he or she is doing a disservice to the media and to the Scots. There can be no excuse for Cameron on this issue and attempts to defend him will underline – if it is needed – that both journalist and newspaper are biased beyond redemption and should never be trusted again.
Meantime independistas have been handed a new poster slogan: Cameron is a Coward.