IT has been a difficult last 10 days for the Labour led coalition in the Scottish Parliament. One minister is facing a no-confidence motion while the whole executive was shaken by the forced u-turn on free personal care for the elderly.

Labour would have been forgiven for feeling some trepidation while waiting for our latest System Three opinion survey.

Yet despite the fieldwork for our latest poll beginning on the day of the personal care for the elderly debacle, Labour does not appear to have suffered any significant adverse impact. It would actually increase its presence in the parliament to 57, picking up an extra constituency from the Liberal Democrats along the way (Ross, Skye and Inverness West).

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Henry McLeish may have ended up with the policy he wanted on free personal care, but the manner in which it was achieved spoke volumes about the tensions between Labour in Scotland and Labour in London.

It was nothing short of a double whammy for the new first minister. Having effectively had one dressing down from the UK Labour party which led to Susan Deacon's initial watered down proposals, the ability to deliver a second one in the form of a defeat for the executive was too much to swallow for Mr McLeish.

The silver lining for the first minister, in the form of yet more good news from our latest poll figures, may be that the public is prepared to overlook Labour's problems in handling the affair for the sake of the delivery of a policy which is undoubtedly popular with the voters.

Of course, many will, and have, argued that this is precisely what the parliament and devolution is supposed to do, With no one party dominating the Holyrood chamber the parliament can more effectively block moves by the executive.

What we have seen this week, though, is also a symptom of a far more significant issue emerging in the post devolution settlement - just how far can the political parties and public opinion at the UK level tolerate Scotland's different path? On policy matters, Scotland is now clearly doing things differently.

It is at this point that devolution begins to impact directly on UK politics. With a general election looming, London Labour will not necessarily be pleased with a situation that leaves it open to attack by opposition parties.

The neat and precise boundaries of British Party politics are under severe strain. Devolution means accepting that a party may need more than one hymn sheet to sing from in future.

For Labour it does not appear that this will emerge as a pressing problem at this election. It is comfortably ahead of the Tories at a UK level and is as strong in Scotland this month as it was in victory in May 1997. The difficult news for the SNP is that it would pick up a paltry one seat from Labour on the basis of our latest figures.

In the run-up to the general election, public opinion in Scotland has been showing a consistent pattern. In almost every poll, for Westminster and Holyrood, since the May elections in 1999, the Labour party and the SNP together account for 70-75% of Scottish voting intentions.

This consistency is apparent whoever is doing particularly well. The current mould of Scottish politics is keeping the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats from making significant inroads. This is particularly bad for the Conservatives, in second place in three of the five most marginal Westminster seats.

Much has changed in Scottish politics since 1997, yet if we do have an election in as little as three months, then it is a good bet that the number of seats that will change hands will be counted on the fingers of one hand.

For Labour this is clearly good news, but the long term raises deeper questions.

l Malcolm Dickson is lecturer in politics at the University of Strathclyde.