Seven reasons we haven’t seen the last of Alex Salmond
Alex Salmond has soundly lost the biggest poll of his political career, but somehow managed to find a form of victory in defeat. It would be madness for him not to return to Westminster in 2015.
The Scottish first minister – he remains in the job until the SNP's party conference starting on November 13th – took the high-profile opportunity of BBC1's Question Time programme last month to declare he had "absolutely decisively" not made up his mind on whether or not to return to parliament.
Today, on BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show he used less flirtatious language to make the same point. "I intend to continue in politics and will continue to represent the people of the north-east of Scotland," Salmond said. A final decision will be taken sooner rather than later.
Jim Murphy, the frontrunner in Scottish Labour's leadership election, is clear about what this means. He is convinced Salmond will announce his plan to return to Westminster as a "backseat driver" to Nicola Sturgeon in a couple of weeks.
Murphy's assessment seems right. There are all sorts of reasons the House of Commons is the right next step for Salmond. Here's a few of the biggest.
1 – Overseeing his legacy
Daily Record urges Westminster leaders to 'honour the vow' on tomorrow's front page pic.twitter.com/CZMsdCc8kL
— Nick Eardley (@nickeardley) September 30, 2014
If Salmond's referendum has achieved anything for Scotland, it was the 'vow' from Westminster's party leaders.
David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg wrote the Scottish people a substantial cheque, but it now needs to be cashed. While Nicola Sturgeon gets on with the job of governing in Edinburgh, Salmond might prefer to focus his work on making sure that cheque is cashed.
As he told Marr, "the immediate priority is to make sure that commitment is delivered to Scotland… there's a real upsurge in Scotland to make absolutely sure that happens". In Westminster, Salmond could lead the SNP's bid to ensure it.
2 – Hung parliament games
— Simon Brooke (@simon_brooke) October 30, 2014
Such is the turbulent state of British politics that the SNP's MPs could play a critical role in deciding who governs in the next parliament.
The polls last week suggesting Labour are set to lose 90% of their seats north of the border might seem far-fetched. But the idea the SNP could make significant gains remains plausible. Salmond, leading a group of around 20 nationalist MPs, could wield real influence.
As Salmond pointed out this morning, he is "one of the few leaders" in British politics who has the experience of running a minority government (he did so in Holyrood for four years). "I have a very close understanding of what other parties should do to have the maximum influence on a minority government," he said earlier.
Given the increased odds of Labour or the Conservatives being obliged to try minority government, Salmond is making clear he would be the man to do the bargaining. "There would be greater traction in negotiating support on a case-by-case basis," he added. Sounds like a plan.
3 – EU stirring
— politics.co.uk (@Politics_co_uk) October 29, 2014
Westminster isn't just the place to have the most influence in the years to come. It's also the place where the biggest issues affecting Scotland will be decided. Top of the list is Britain's ongoing membership of Europe.
Salmond has heartily endorsed Sturgeon's call for a Scottish veto against Britain leaving. Such a move would be a democratic outrage, but that won't stop the SNP making political capital out of the idea.
Stirring constitutional crises wherever possible is on page one of the nationalist playbook; in the Commons, Salmond would be the man able to maximise his cause's troublemaking potential.
4 – Salmond the statesman
An interest in European affairs is one thing. Salmond as a leader of the world stage is quite another. After the rejection of independence, that possibility now seems to have evaporated. But that has never stopped him taking a strong interest in Britain's foreign policy.
When I interviewed Salmond in the final week of the referendum campaign he made clear his approach was anti-imperialist. "If you think that being a significant force in the world is to disobey international law and launch an illegal invasion and participate in one in Iraq, most people in Scotland say we don't want that," he said.
"What we want to have is a country which regards its greatness not in the number of Trident missiles it has, not in the wars it participates in like Iraq, but a country that values its greatness, that values the compassion it shows towards fellow human beings."
Even the nationalists concede Scottish home rule, if it ever comes about, would not stretch to determining British foreign policy. That can only ever happen in one place. And it's not Holyrood.
5 – Revenge
There might just be a personal element to all this. In his concession speech on September 19th you could see the exhaustion and the disappointment in his face: he lost the race of his life. The Westminster elite united against him.
Salmond, the poster boy of independence for so many years, has been written off. Murphy, casting himself as a leader of the future, wrote Salmond off this morning, saying: "Alec is soon to be yesterday's man because the sun is setting on his career."
How sweet would it be, therefore, for Salmond to return to Westminster next year and deny Murphy's party a majority.
6 – Giving Sturgeon some space
Ian Davidson, the Labour MP and chair of the Scottish affairs committee, believes Salmond's close link with Scottish nationalism ultimately undermined this year's campaign.
"It's to their detriment that within living memory they've only had one leader," he told Politics.co.uk in August. "Independence is tied up with him as an individual, rather than the nationalists as a gang or with separation as a concept."
Salmond has himself publicly acknowledged the SNP could do with another leader. But by shifting himself over to Westminster he gives himself the opportunity to make all the real decisions while giving Sturgeon some of the limelight.
7 – He's got form
All of the above is dependent on the individual: they are reasons, but not enablers. What really suggests Salmond will make a Westminster return is his track record in flitting between the London and Holyrood parliaments.
Just look at his career to date. He was an MP from 1987 to 2010. During that time, he was also an MSP for three constituencies: first in Banff and Buchan, then in Gordon and after that in Aberdeenshire East. It's called a 'dual mandate', and for most of Salmond's career it has served him very well.
In the next few years, though, Salmond only really needs to be in one place.
Alex Salmond: Scotland's "destination is set" for independence, only "number of stops on the way" to be determined pic.twitter.com/8yPPKlBrzT
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) November 2, 2014