Will it be 40 seats? Will it be 50?

While UK party leaders continue to squabble over the protocols of a TV election debate, the SNP goes from strength to strength – and, says Scot-Buzz editor BILL JAMIESON, it portends a profound, epochal change in UK politics.

The big talker in Scotland over the past two days has been the latest poll by Tory peer Lord Ashcroft. It shows an ever growing surge towards the SNP – and a further collapse in support for Labour and the other unionist parties as the May general election looms.

The implications have barely been grasped south of the Border. There are many.

But there is one implication in particular that this poll surge has not just put on the horizon but drawn closer than anyone dared predict last September: a second referendum.

The Ashcroft poll suggests the SNP could win the safest Labour seat in Scotland. It is predicted to win Edinburgh South West, once securely held by retiring former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling. The swing would oust former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy. The Conservatives could lose their one remaining seat in Scotland.  And even Gordon Brown’s seat of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath is now at risk.

It is the SNP’s dream – and Labour’s worst nightmare.

Predictions of the number of triumphant SNP MPs now range up to 50.

Now caveats are needed on poll predictions. Voters may be reluctant to disclose their true allegiance given the current highly charged nature of Scottish politics. And the SNP surge could stop short of toppling some of the best known names in politics.

But there is no denying the fact that the SNP, far from shrinking back after losing the independence referendum last September, has surged ahead.

It’s on course for its biggest election triumph ever.

And that has enormous consequences, for Scotland and for the UK.

An outcome near to what these latest polls are forecasting would have profound implications for the UK constitution.

It would mark a sea change, both in Scottish politics and in Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK.

Few in England have woken up to the magnitude of the change ahead. Far from the referendum having settled matters, a resurgent SNP could put the future of the Union in greater doubt than ever.

What might it mean down south? An SNP contingent of 40 – never mind the 50 some are predicting –  and led by a taunting Alex Salmond could deny the Conservatives a second term in government and encourage the triumphant  new SNP MPs to play hardball with Labour on any “confidence and supply” arrangement.

Pushing “more powers” to the full extent of the current agenda – and beyond – would certainly be a triumph for supporters of independence.

And as powerful leverage, the SNP contingent would be fired up to oppose further “austerity” measures to secure “more powers” whoever emerges as the largest party.

They would be able to exploit the weakness of an Ed Miliband premiership.

But there are even more serious questions for a Tory minority administration.

Would it be accepted in Scotland as a legitimate government? Indeed, would its writ run in Scotland at all? Many of its measures would be likely to be fiercely opposed – particularly those relating to finance and the budget.

And there are bigger questions beyond. An SNP triumph in the Holyrood elections next year would not only cement the party’s grip on the political agenda, it would also put into play the prospect of a second referendum on independence.

And that would be very difficult for the unionist parties to resist – even though last September’s vote was thought to have settled the issue for a generation.

How might business react to the prospect of a second referendum – and another ferocious political campaign?

Not well. Not well at all.

For many who would like to invest and expand, the prospect could prove a killer. And this time it is not just “uncertainty” that would trouble the business community. It’s an SNP agenda that is in many respects is even further to the Left than Labour.

That would be the investment killer.

A second referendum within five years? On these latest poll showings, don’t rule it out. And this time, the vote would be more likely to be ‘Yes’.

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