To hear Labour tell it, its election-winning machine is turning the screw on its Nationalist opponents.

The big beasts of Downing Street have recently headed north, as extra staff stream across the border. Tony Blair's pollster, Philip Gould, is on the case, as is The Union advertising agency.

The party has turned down the volume on the strident warnings that Scotland is incapable of running its own affairs, and claims its attacks on the SNP's financial reckoning is narrowing the Nationalist lead in the polls.

However, whereas Labour was eight points adrift, a private survey found the gap is only slightly down.

Health Minister Andy Kerr is turning his attention from waiting times to campaign communications, making sure the MSP troops on the ground are suitably on-message. Jack McConnell is rolling out manifesto commitments - 57 varieties so far - and building up to a rally this Saturday.

But ask those MSPs hoping to return to Holyrood after May 3, and many say they'll be running local campaigns. Would they like a visit from Tony Blair or Jack McConnell? Er, thanks all the same, they say, but that really won't be necessary.

Instead, they want to play on Labour loyalties, firming up a vote that feels soft. Reminders of the current leadership won't help.

The tensions within the Labour camp have opened up with the departure of its communications chief, Stephen Lawther, a polling expert with a low profile but a significant role. Eleven weeks out from the election, he suddenly decided "to spend more time with his family".

The tensions previously focused on John McTernan, a Downing Street adviser untrusted by Jack McConnell's team and close to the cash-for-peerages investigation. Pressure switched this month to Lawther because he was arguing there should be more emphasis on the basics of crime, health and jobs. The constitutional debate was barely registering, and even Mr McConnell's favoured theme of education is low down people's priority list.

Lawther fell victim to the delicate, internal coalitions by which Labour is run, featuring the competing egos and power bases in 10 Downing Street and Number 11, plus headquarters and Team McConnell.

The First Minister is sensitive to his status being belittled, and has slowly got Downing Street round to accepting the obvious - that their hopes rest on the First Minister they have now, rather than anyone they might prefer in his place.

Peel another layer, and watch the post-election positioning. If Labour takes a bruising, it could get ugly for both Gordon Brown and Mr McConnell. The key players are preparing the ground for excuses, placing the blame, and getting away from the scene of the crime.

Note, for instance, the role of Mr Kerr. Putting him at the centre of events may use his talents and help save his East Kilbride seat, but if things go pear-shaped, it also makes it harder for him to make moves on the leadership.