THE spring party conference season is upon us.
Most years the emphasis is on "party". These vernal political get-togethers tend to be sociable rather than agenda setting; old pals meeting up for a blether. A pie and a pint in the Pillars Bar, if you happen to be conferencing over the road at the Caird Hall in Dundee, would usually take priority over plotting or, heaven forbid, party policy.
This year is different, though, with much at stake for the LibDems, the SNP and Labour who, in that order, are all holding conferences between now and the end of April.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Business Secretary Vince Cable kicked things off yesterday as they attempted to breathe some life into the Scottish LibDems at the end of a week in which polls showed the party on course to lose nine of its 11 MPs north of the Border.
Support has halved in the seats they held in 2010. They are now down to 20% in their best areas, raising the prospect of a mainland wipeout – which is exactly what happened to them at Holyrood in 2011 in terms of constituency seats – at the next Westminster election.
In his speech in Dundee (though at an out-of-town venue irritatingly distant from the Pillars Bar) Mr Clegg tried to draw a veil over the fact he governs in Coalition with the Conservatives by insisting his Cabinet colleagues "cannot be trusted". This was surely another "Look! There's a squirrel!" moment, as Johann Lamont might have put it, and it's hard to imagine it will reassure many of those disillusioned voters, most of whom seem to have decamped to the SNP.
Which brings us to Alex Salmond's party. If the LibDems are leaving Dundee today with a lot of work still to do, the same applies to the SNP as they prepare to gather in Inverness next weekend.
Their conference comes at a critical time in the referendum battle. The latest TNS BRMB poll, revealed in The Herald this week, showed the Yes camp trailing by 19 points, with 52% opposed to independence and 33% in favour. Depressingly for the Nationalists the don't-knows – the group they really need to convince – have shrunk to 15% and they look to be splitting evenly between the two sides. If Yes Scotland fails to make headway soon, questions will start to be asked about leadership and strategy. Mr Salmond needs to rally his troops and steady nerves as well as reach out to a wider audience.
At least he has a strong plan for the week ahead. The SNP are due to stage three debates at Holyrood, on Trident, the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war and the Government's new, uprated North Sea oil forecasts, each designed to illustrate why Scotland should become independent.
Then on Thursday we are expected to learn the date of the historic vote when the Scottish Government publishes its Referendum Bill. That in itself will be an historic moment for the Nationalist movement and the First Minister can expect an equally historic thunderous reaction when he brandishes the Bill during his speech a week today. In short it's a big week – and it will be a big disappointment if the Yes camp doesn't enjoy a boost in the next set of polls.
Labour's arrival at the same Eden Court Theatre venue in Inverness is a little further off, on April 19 to be precise, so there will be more to say about the task facing Johann Lamont nearer the time. But interest will focus on Ms Lamont's plans to develop devolution, crucial if Labour is to argue that a No vote does not mean no change. For once, then, we're in for a busy spring.
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