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PM: Extra on a stage where he can only show his face

ONE presumes it was meant to be a helpful suggestion.

"Why not meet people in Sauchiehall Street?" asked a senior Tory when musing on how the Prime Minister could make the best of his two-day visit to Scotland.

Why not, indeed, take a stroll along that boulevard of broken retail dreams, that Bois de Boulogne of Glasgow life?

To supply a suitable response, we invite readers to choose from the following three options. David Cameron will not be going walkabout in Sauchiehall Street because:

l The idea arrived too late and the schedule is locked down;

l The weather can be iffy in Glasgow at this time of year;

l Mr Cameron cannot move as fast as Usain Bolt and would likely find half the contents of a henhouse landing on his napper before you could say "John Prescott".

There is a day of the visit to go, and more sorties to follow before September, so he may yet prove us all wrong. What is not in any doubt is the relish with which the Scottish Government has been gearing up for the prime ministerial visit. The First Minister, Alex Salmond, started the week by calling Mr Cameron a "substantial liability" to the No camp, adding that he "personifies everything that is wrong with the politics in this country at the present moment, where a Tory prime minister with minimal, negligible support in Scotland can command political authority over our country, a country which has never and will never elect people like him to govern us".

Strong stuff. Perhaps Mr Cameron should have arrived bare-chested and wearing a Putin mask if he wanted to ensure a warm welcome from the First Minister.

The Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, had taken over the gleeful hand-rubbing by the end of the week, declaring the Cameron visit "part of a wholesale Tory takeover of the No campaign, which will prove disastrous for them".

While one would hardly expect Scottish ministers to bake a cake for Mr Cameron's visit, the advance gloating seemed unnecessary and mean-spirited. Having a go at the Tories conjures up images of barn doors and footballs, banjos and bovine posteriors.

They are such easy targets that one might have thought a mature, confident, political force would have considered itself above such carping. Perhaps the temptation was too much. Or maybe there is a part of the Yes campaign which worries that stranger things have happened in politics than a "toxic" prime minister turning out to be not so poisonous to a cause after all.

Come with us through the tunnel of time to early 1992. Boris Yeltsin was in the Kremlin, Bill Clinton was on his way to the White House and John Major was widely predicted to be facing defeat in the UK General Election. The Tories were tired and divided, the economy was limping along, victory was there for the taking by Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader. Yet it was the grey man, not the Welshman, who won.

The reason for John Major's victory and Neil Kinnock's defeat was clear. The electorate did not rate the Tories much but they rated Labour even less. That was the simple, brutal truth. Everything else is debatable, including what impact Mr Major had with his soapbox defence of the Union. Not a lot is the answer. Then, as now, there was something laughable and Pooterish about Mr Major's warning that the United Kingdom was in danger.

"Wake up my fellow countrymen," he told a rally. "Wake up now before it is too late." Divorce was mentioned. Disastrous consequences lay ahead. The tossing aside of a 300-year-old Union was decried. And all of that just because a devolved parliament had been proposed.

Mr Major spoke about all sorts of matters from that upturned box. Everything, indeed, from the price of soap (which would naturally go up under Labour) to Europe. His thoughts on the Union only mattered in as much as they fed into his wider, steady-as-we-go message. Backing Labour was a gamble from which it would be difficult if not impossible to recover, he argued.

All those hard-won economic gains would be lost. It would expose the country to a cold, cruel, uncertain world. Best, if not better, to stick with what you know. Is any of this sounding familiar?

Times and Tory leaders have changed since 1992. The Scottish Parliament eventually arrived and the sky did not fall in. Mr Major went on to prove that there was a political force more spectacularly useless than Labour. Alas, it turned out to be his own party.

In almost every respect, Mr Major's "wake up" speech is badly showing its age. But substitute the warnings about voting Labour for voting Yes and one pretty much has the No campaign's playbook to date. Why, then, is it not deemed to be working?

Given the No campaign's lead in the polls, one could argue that it is working very nicely indeed. Surveys, such as the one by TNS Scotland published this week, show that voters regard the debate as negative, but it does not appear to be turning them in any significant numbers against the No camp, the side that has made a virtue out of predicting the worst.

How Mr Major, and every other leader who has turned a negative campaign into a positive victory must look at such a familiar trend and smile.

For all Mr Cameron's praise of John Smith, for all his reaching out to Scotland, for all that the No campaign is meant to be switching to a more positive stance, the Prime Minister is pursuing the same "steady as we go" strategy as his distant predecessor. But will he be as successful in preserving the status quo as Mr Major was in 1992, or have times and the messenger changed too much?

It is safe to assume that Mr Cameron knows he is not God's gift to the No camp. Indeed, it is a truth so self-evident he can even make a joke of it. When your standing is so low, the only way is up.

Simply by coming to Scotland, the Prime Minister has scored a few Brownie points. He knows he can do no more than show his face. There are very few personalities in politics who can change a race merely by being in it, and David Cameron is not one of them.

He has deftly positioned himself as an extra in the drama that is the Scottish independence referendum and he is smart enough not to want a bigger role now. He was here yesterday, he will be here today, and he will be gone tomorrow. All that will remain of him will be the message.

In such a context, the disarray in the Scottish leadership of the No campaign is an irrelevance. One day John Reid is the bright new star, next it is Gordon Brown, then Alistair Darling again, then the Alexanders, or maybe even Tory leader Ruth Davidson.

This is not so much a fight for control among big beasts as a particularly naff heat of Scotland's Got Talent. Either way, it will ultimately be the steady-as-we-go message that matters, not the messenger.

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