It has been the scourge of many an SNP activist and Nationalist candidate alike during Westminster elections – ‘A vote for the SNP is a vote to let the Tories in’.

Despite there being a perfectly logical (if long-winded) response to such a taunt, I am sure many a frustrated political combatant has been left hamstrung and dumbfounded by the barb. Indeed, the above is the main reason why I believed the SNP should have made an unequivocal statement before last year’s election that a vote for the party would be a vote for Gordon Brown as Prime Minister, as if Angus Robertson and his colleagues could ever have brought themselves to vote in favour or even abstain in the face of a Conservative Prime Minister being voted in.

Scottish voters could have been free to vote for the SNP or Labour, safe in the knowledge that whoever won out of them, the chances of David Cameron getting in were unchanged. The ‘Tweedledee and Tweedledum’ attack never works when the electorate quite clearly prefers ‘dee to ‘dum. It could have been seen as Labour+, a vote for Gordon, a vote for Scotland and a vote against nuclear weapons. Smashing, where do I sign.

However, with May 2011 on the horizon, the tables may yet be turned. To what extent could ‘Vote Labour – get Gray’ work on to the SNP’s benefit?

Fresh from undignified insults of Ireland and Iceland (recovering faster than expected incidentally), the insult of Montenegro is the latest embarrassing incident that Iain Gray has pulled his party into, not to mention the latest bit of evidence that Iain thus far can’t match the statesmanlike gravitas and verbal delivery that Alex Salmond possesses. Even the harshest of the First Minister’s critics tend to agree that he is a tremendous politician in the purest sense of the word and therein lies Labour’s problem with current leader Gray.

And, well, does it get much worse than this?:

As I pack up to leave I ask Gray to give me five interesting and unknown facts about himself to dispel his boring image.

“I speak Portuguese although it’s very rusty,” he says. “I grow bonsai trees.” There is a silence and his press officer throws in the observation that Gray is a blue belt in karate. “It’s a green belt actually,” says Gray. “That’s three.” The PR comes up with the observation that Gray’s holiday job as a student was as a bus conductor. “That’s four,” says Gray. “We need one more.”

In the silence you can hear the sound of spatulas scraping barrel bottoms. “There must be something else,” says Gray. It’s like naming five famous Belgians. We all think hard. I suggest he thinks of the most mischievous thing he’s ever done. “No there’s nothing,” he jokes. “I’ve always been perfect. Smoking is the extent of my badness.” The seconds tick on.

I’m not having a go. Well, I am, but with an overriding, justifiable point. Labour are clearly ahead in the polls and currently has its tails up with an expectation that May is theirs for the taking but there is a large question mark hanging over its key individual and that is a question mark that the public is well within its rights to consider and ponder, and the public will do so in the months to come but not before the media really starts to peel back the layers of who this would-be First Minister is and how up to the job he may or may not be.

Many a country has seen a challenging party ride high in the polls in the run up to an election only to be denied victory at the last hurdle due to a flatfooted leader that just didn’t make the grade :-

Neil Kinnock in the UK (1992)
Segolene Royal in France (1997)
John Kerry in the US (2004)
Mona Sahlin in Sweden (2010)
Julia Gillard in Australia (2010) (ok, she eventually won, but only just and after throwing away a commanding lead in the polls)
Ed Miliband in the UK (2015) (just joking, but he is heading that way…)

The suggestion that Gray falls short of Salmond’s level of support could equally be applied to Labour’s Shadow Cabinet when compared to the current Cabinet, further reinforcing my point. When personality trumps party, the effects tend to apply late.

One can already feel that this coming election will be a visceral, personal, unattractive slugfest; the ‘enemy’ isn’t even contesting the election as Cameron and Clegg and the source of the cuts are safely ensconced in Westminster for the next four years which, I suspect, will only add to the level of bickering that will ensue up North. The bickering will lead to bruising, the contusion to confusion and, against that backdrop, a perceived weakness on the opposing side can only ever be expected to be exploited.

The SNP has wanted a referendum on independence for the past four years but, if it can make this coming election a referendum on Iain Gray, then therein probably lies its best chance of success.

It would be nice to talk of a great battle of ideals that is due to take place, a row of party leaders seeking to inspire and impress its citizens with high-minded ideas and wide-reaching solutions. I predict that in the various hustings and tv debates Scotland will, sadly, fall way short of this aim.

Play the ball not the man? For the Holyrood elections it doesn’t seem likely from an SNP perspective and, perhaps, justifiably so.

There will be no ‘Alex Salmond for First Minister’ voting option this year but ‘Vote Labour – get Gray’. Could that be the crucial slogan of Holyrood 2011?