Tom Richmond: Salmond leads the only party with momentum

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LIKE it or not, Alex Salmond remains the most under-estimated politician in Britain and the joker in this year’s election pack.

Scotland’s former First Minister, and the resurgent SNP, are likely to yield far more influence, in the event of a hung parliament on May 7, than Ukip.

The latest estimates suggest that the Scottish Nationalists will return at least 30 MPs, which will give them far more leverage than Nigel Farage’s party who are downplaying expectations and could be left with just two or three backbenchers.

This is why Salmond, who is likely to win the Aberdeenshire seat of Gordon off the Lib Dems, caused such a stir when he threatened to veto any Budget written by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls in the event of Labour being the biggest party.

“If you hold the balance, then you hold the power,” he said before confirming the SNP would attempt to vote down a Tory Queen’s Speech if the Conservatives attempt to form a minority government.

Yet, after the main Westminster parties came within a whisker of presiding over the break-up of the United Kingdom because they failed to understand the scale of Mr Salmond’s electoral appeal ahead of last September’s referendum vote on Scottish independence, they would be unwise to under-estimate this canniest of campaigners.

It is self-evident in his new diary The Dream Shall Never Die: 100 Days That Changed Scotland Forever, when he recalled one of the first questions that he tabled to Margaret Thatcher at PMQs in his role as a brash backbencher largely unknown outside Scotland.

The then Tory leader had been on a charm offensive in Scotland in the spring of 1988, ahead of the poll tax, and had spoken at the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly before attending the Scottish Cup final at Hampden where rival Celtic and Dundee United fans brandished red cards in protest.

His question is worth repeating: “Will the Prime Minister demonstrate her extensive knowledge of Scottish affairs by reminding the House of the names of the Moderator of the General Assembly which she addressed, and the captain of Celtic, to whom she presented the cup?”

Cue howls of derision on all sides of the House of Commons as Mrs Thatcher stumbled over her response before a realisation that this one question marked the SNP MP down as a formidable political operator with the oratory to match. The Conservative Party has still to recover north of the border from this put-down.

It is why the Scottish Nationalists are the one party certain to increase their number of MPs at the election, hence Salmond’s confidence and belligerence.

For, while the Tories have been gradually losing the support of public sector workers, immigrants and voters in Scotland where the party’s expectations do not extend beyond defending the only Dumfriesshire seat that the Conservatives currently hold, the SNP are on the march and now have a growing membership that provides more than 100,000 boots on the ground.

If only Britain had such effective advocates. That’s the point. If it did, the country would not face the prospect of being held to ransom by the Scots. That’s the irony of this election – last September’s narrow referendum loss has left Alex Salmond holding all the aces.

I SEE Nick Clegg used the 175th – and final – meeting of the coalition’s cabinet to assert that the era of single-party government is over.

Yet will the Lib Dems, who still hope to hold the balance of power after May 7, still be able to be categorised as a national party? I have my doubts. Their campaign will revolve around defending the 57 seats that they won five years ago.

In my small corner of West Yorkshire, the Lib Dems will be campaigning frenetically on one side of the A65 where Greg Mulholland hopes to hold the Leeds North West seat. Yet, on the opposite side of the road, the party will be nowhere to seen because Pudsey is a straight fight between the Tories and Labour.

Is this good for democracy – and the wider standing of Mr Clegg’s party? I think not.

ON the day that Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, announced that two Chinook helicopters and an upgraded surface-to-air missile system were being deployed to the Falklands to deter the latest rumblings of Argentine aggression, the top Tory had to go on the defensive.

Amid fears that Britain will be unable to honour its obligation to Nato to spend two per cent of GDP on defence, a commitment made more pressing by the turmoil in the Middle East and Russia’s return to Cold War entrenchment, Mr Fallon said the Armed Forces will get the resources and equipment they need,

“We are spending two per cent at the moment. We are going to be spending two per cent again next year,” he declared. He was less forthcoming about subsequent years – a surprising oversight given how the Conservatives have always prided themselves on delivering a strong and robust defence policy.

LEAVING the petrol station the other day, I followed a car whose occupants promptly began to throw the wrappings of chocolate bars, and other snacks, that they had purchased moments beforehand at the garage. Given that they paid for the confectionery by debit card, is it possible not to devise a way that could see discarded items traced back to the purchaser so they can be held accountable for Britain’s litter epidemic?

Despite the goodwill shown by those public-spirited people who collect other people’s rubbish, existing anti-litter strategies are simply not working.

I LOVE to swim – the solitude of the water is one way to escape the mobile phone – and I can think of no better form of exercise. Yet, in the week Olympic heroine Rebecca Adlington opened Selby’s new pool, it was claimed that nine million adults in England are unable to swim. This is a matter of concern – it’s one sport that can save lives – but I hope the Amateur Swimming Association does not blame the schools. The onus should be on mothers and fathers to take their children to swimming lessons – it’s called parental responsibility.

ARE things looking up for much maligned Morrisons under its new chief executive David Potts who has now culled half of his senior managers? Not only is my local store stocking skimmed milk on a regular basis – believe me, quite an achievement – but a cashier said checkout queues were now shorter because managers on the shop floor were being used to determine staff numbers rather than an infernal computer?

Credit where credit is due, but this still doesn’t explain some of the prices it charges. Seven packets of extra strong mints were on offer at £2.19 when you could purchase, further down the aisle, four packets of the same brand for £1 or eight for £2.