Alex Salmond and the SNP have staged a sensational comeback in the race for Holyrood, moving into the lead over Labour with only ten weeks to go until election day, according to a poll for The Times.
The Ipsos MORI survey of more than 1,000 voters reveals a big resurgence by the Nationalists since the end of last year, putting them ahead, in terms of those certain to vote, in the first-past-the-post and regional list sections of the poll for the first time in a year.
The result of the poll throws wide open the outcome of the Scottish election and brings to a halt a period when Labour appeared to be heading for victory. It will trigger deep alarm within Labour and puts pressure on Iain Gray, its leader in Scotland, with voters preferring Mr Salmond to Mr Gray as the next First Minister.
If the findings were repeated on May 5, the SNP would again be the largest party with 51 seats, four more than now, according to an analysis by Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University. Labour would have 48 MSPs (up 2).The Tories would have 14 MSPs (down 3) and the Lib Dems 12 (down 4). The Greens would have 4 MSPs, double their present standing.
It would mean that Mr Salmond could opt again for his preferred option of minority government, or come to an understanding, short of a formal coalition, with the Conservatives.
An SNP-Tory pact would give him a one-seat overall majority on key votes, provided that the new Presiding Officer came from one of the other parties.
If Mr Salmond opted for a “rainbow” pact with the Lib Dems and Greens, he could look forward to another four years in power supported, again on key votes, by 67 MSPs, a majority of 5.
The poll, undertaken after renewed controversy over the release of the Lockerbie bomber and after the SNP Budget passed last week with SNP, Tory and Lib Dem MSPs joining forces, is a huge boost for the Nationalists. It shows that on the constituency or first-past-the-post section of the election, the SNP would have 37 per cent support, up 6 points on a similar Ipsos MORI poll last November, when the party was 10 points behind Labour.
Labour would have 36 per cent, down 5 points, while the Tories and the Lib Dems are flatlining at 13 per cent and 10 per cent respectively.
In the regional list, the SNP are on 35 per cent (up 3), Labour is on 33 per cent (down 3), the Tories are on 13 per cent (up 1), and the Lib Dems on 10 per cent (up 1). The Greens are on 6 per cent.
Recent polls have indicated that Labour’s strong performance in Scotland in the general election was being carried over to the Holyrood poll. But with voters’ attention now focused on the Holyrood election, the momentum appears to be with the SNP.
The party’s claim that in Mr Salmond and his Cabinet colleagues it has a better team of “big hitters” compared with Labour, seems to be resonating with voters — 51 per cent are satisfied with Mr Salmond’s performance, compared with 35 per cent dissatisfied.
Only 33 per cent are satisfied with Mr Gray (down six points on last November) and 34 per cent dissatisfied. Just as worrying for Labour is that 33 per cent of respondents have no opinion on Mr Gray’s performance as leader, indicating that for many Scots he remains an unknown quantity as an alternative First Minister.
If Labour fails to regain power in Scotland it would be a shattering blow for Mr Gray and a serious reverse for Ed Miliband in his first big test since he succeeded Gordon Brown.
The only comfort for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in Scotland is that their support has not slipped farther and now appears to have reached a plateau. But both parties would have fewer MSPs.