It's not been a great couple of weeks for Alex Salmond, has it? First there was the budget hullabaloo, then the SNP was compelled to abandon (at least for the time being) its plans to replace the council tax with a local income tax and now the leaders of the opposition parties have each confirmed that they will vote against the nationalists' referendum bill.
As matters stand, then, there will be no independence referendum next year. The Tories, Lib Dems and Labour all say it would be "inappropriate" to have an independence debate in the midst of an economic downturn. Well perhaps it would and perhaps it would be a mighty distraction from more pressing matters. But one can't help but feel that they've got the SNP on the run and that, therefore, this is a good moment at which to pile on the agony. For the first time since the nationalists won power in 2007, they seem a beleaguered, rather than a cocky and confident minority. Given how much enjoyment the SNP have derived from twisting unionist tails, it's hard to begrudge the opposition their wee moment of schadenfreude.
But is this wise? At some point in the future there's likely to be a referendum. The question then, is when and in what circumstances will it be held? Theoretically, the opposition should want to hold the vote at a time that would cause the SNP maximum discomfort. From that perspective, a referendum in the middle of an economic downturn seems like a better bet than a vote held in happier times.
In other words, the opposition are trusting that the SNP will lose, not gain seats in the next Holyrood elections in 2011 and that the nationalists will be unable to form a ministry, even a minority one, after the next election. That may prove a wise enough gamble, although it's also true that conventional wisdom holds that the SNP would rather the Tories were in power at Westminster when the referendum is held.
Nonetheless, if I were Alex Salmond I'd be quite happy to park the notion of a referendum next year. If nothing else, that gives the SNP the chance to campaign in 2011 upon a promise of a referendum. By contrast, a vote next year - which would, I think most people agree - see the electorate reject a referendum would spike the nationalists' guns for the foreseeable future. Once independence was rejected, what would the SNP have to offer in 2011? And by then, with the Tories installed at Westminister, Labour would be able to campaign on a "standing up for Scotland" platform too.
So, as always, the question is cui bono? Tactically and in the short-term I think it's the opposition; strategically and looking further ahead I suspect this is better news for the SNP than it is for the other parties. Unless, that is, the Tories and Labour fear that the SNP might actually win a referendum held next year.