It has been over 24 hours since David Cameron made it clear that he would be advancing plans for “decisive” action on the independence referendum. He has since fleshed out his rhetoric with an offer to the SNP that it can hold a referendum in the next 18 months that the UK Government will pave a legal path right up to the country’s break up for. The SNP has, quite reasonably, rejected the notion entirely and remains unmoved from its plans to hold the referendum in the second half of this term. So that’s the two main protagonists out of the way in a new skirmish that isn’t entirely unexpected, but what say Labour and the Lib Dems? What input shall they have that could pull this situation their way? Well, precious little and not a jot so far as far as I can make out, save for Tom Harris who is lockstep behind Cameron (quelle surprise).

So what should Labour and the Lib Dems do about this surprise development? And who are we looking to for leadership, Miliband/Clegg or Lamont/Rennie? This is a big test for how devolved these parties’ strategies and decision making are and it is an opportunity for leaders on both sides of the border.

First of all, the time for fence sitting is over. This isn’t Calman, this isn’t bland attack pieces in the newspaper, this isn’t blocking a minority Government as was the case in 2007-2011. The game has begun and some parties still haven’t laced up their boots. It is of course difficult to predict what Labour will do as it is not at all clear what type of Scotland the party, and the party members, wish to live in in the medium to long term. Assuming that it is somewhere between the status quo and full fiscal autonomy, they should try to restrict the space that Alex Salmond has to operate in.

David Cameron’s proposal is either right or it is wrong, this is a decision for Scotland or it is a decision to be dictated by London and, for me, Labour and the Lib Dems should seek to argue both. David Cameron has served up the ideal opportunity for the Scottish leaders of unionist parties to loosen their ties with London a little bit more. Johann Lamont should stand shoulder to shoulder with Alex Salmond in denouncing Cameron’s intervention, even if she is doubtlessly secretly pleased that the UK Government has made a move and has some sort of strategy up its sleeve to stop the relentless Nationalist march. The way that she can assist, along with Willie Rennie through a Labour/LD alliance on this issue, is to effectively man mark the SNP and dilute their arguments by sharing them, differing only in the result that the hope to achieve whenever the referendum comes around.

Ed Miliband should provide lukewarm but convincing support of David Cameron’s proposal, stating his commitment to the UK and desire that Scotland remains a part of it while Johann Lamont can rail just as much as Salmond is doing currently from Edinburgh, pushing for that second question that Labour still needs to own and shape in order to get back into the driving seat of Scotland’s political journey. Labour can win support of those who wish to go early or go later on a vote, the SNP is restricted to the latter; Labour can win support for proponents of fiscal autonomy, the status quo, devo max, the SNP is increasingly restricted to independence. (This of course comes with the caveat that full fiscal autonomy and devolution max are de facto victories for all but the most fundamentalist of SNP members. It, again, all hinges on precisely what Labour actually wants from this plebiscite).

So that is Labour, and to an extent the Lib Dems should try the same, but Willie Rennie and Nick Clegg have more to lose. The Tories have shown that they do not need Scottish MPs in order to win a UK General Election and they won’t need any in 2015 to win a craved majority. So even if Scotland collectively bellows with anger at an early referendum being forced upon us, it’s no skin off David Cameron and all but one of the Conservative MPs’ noses as long as the result is a No. The Lib Dems however, if seen as the handmaidens of a dastardly ruse by the Bullingdon elite, will have to pay a very heavy price for a longer period than they already face. A quarter of the Lib Dems’ MPs are north of the border, the Tories only have one, so this is a bigger risk for Clegg than it is for Cameron and to what extent depends on the attitudes of Scots.

Alex Salmond has tried to use Scottish nonchalance to his advantage by gambling that the public doesn’t mind waiting until 2014, 2015 or 2016 to have the referendum that we provided “an overwhelming mandate” for (as opposed to just a standard mandate of course); David Cameron is trying to use that same apparent unbothered opinion of Scots to bounce the public into an early referendum with insignificant backlash, and he may yet pull it off. Labour and the Lib Dems have the opportunity to come through the middle and actually stir the public’s imagination by owning the constitutional settlement that most Scots seem to prefer, but if they haven’t done it yet then why would they do so now?

Time is running out for them and irrelevance beckons as events currently unfold, and particularly as Cameron and Salmond escalate their positions, taking the headlines with them.

The choice of silence is no longer an option for Labour and the Lib Dems. It’s time for a bit of Bring it On.

Scottish Labour have a very short news item on their website. They want the referendum “as quickly as possible” and want it to be “quick, clear and decisive”, wording that is remarkably similar to that of David Cameron’s on Andrew Marr yesterday, though they have ducked answering the question of whether they agree with Cameron’s bribe or not.

For me, it is a mistake for Scottish Labour to line up too closely and too cosily with the Tories on this and leave so much vacant space for the SNP to take the anti-London, anti-Tory, seemingly pro-Scotland line on its own. I reckon holding firm to an anti-SNP line has clouded Labour’s better judgement. The SNP did after all win its majority after devolved parties stated that if people wanted a referendum on SNP terms then Scots would have to vote for it. The perception across surely is this – Salmond won, he gets to make the rules.

However, the biggest problem for Labour is this (and this news story doesn’t help answer it at all)…:

What powers do Scottish Labour want Scotland to have going forward? It’s not enough to be the negative party saying No for the next 18 months.