Willie Rennie, from the little I've seen of him over the years, seems like a decent bloke, and I have a feeling he'll have more of a personal appeal than his predecessor Tavish Scott. Paradoxically, that's partly because he's less polished than Tavish, who often looked as if he was reading from a script even when he wasn't - Rennie comes across as unspun, and therefore more genuine. That's the good news for his party. But where to start with the bad news? The new leader basically had to make two big strategic calls to set the course for electoral recovery. Firstly, he needed to argue the case for the kind of substantial constitutional progress that would break the Scottish Lib Dems out of the straightjacket of being just another shade of grey, humdrum unionism. Secondly, he needed to make a psychological (if not literal) break with the federal party and its catastrophic alliance with the Conservatives. Rennie has flunked both tasks on day one - and he's seemingly done it with his eyes wide open. All he's offering on the constitution is more of the same (after all nothing's really changed, has it?), and he's incredibly offering an even closer relationship with Clegg and the gang than before. As noted here a number of times, Tavish's stance on the latter point during the election campaign was intellectually incoherent - if you wanted to know about something good the UK party had done, he was your man, but if it was something more toxic for heaven's sake go and ask them about it. But at least that showed a flickering of understanding of the kind of distancing that was required to limit the damage. Rennie, by contrast, is giving every indication of being a party leader who quite comprehensively does not "get it" at all.
Specifically on the constitution, it seemed to me that there were three gaping holes in Rennie's line of argument on Newsnight Scotland tonight -
1) He repeatedly claimed that the Calman proposals had to be adhered to because a consensus between "the parties" had been reached. That was a dubious point even before the election given that only three of the five parties in the Scottish parliament were on board for Calman, but now? Can minority opinion at Holyrood really be described as a "consensus"?
2) He stressed that Alex Salmond couldn't claim a mandate for greater powers for the Scottish Parliament, because that issue hadn't been to the forefront of the campaign that won the SNP the election. But he then curiously made the claim that the unionist parties themselves had an "overwhelming mandate" to proceed with Calman on the basis of the 2010 general election result. The difficulty there is that I'm struggling to recall Calman being mentioned any more frequently during that campaign than the SNP's plans for greater powers were during the Holyrood contest. Rennie's own logic therefore surely suggests that the unionist parties can't possibly claim a mandate for their preferred constitutional blueprint - even if we were to accept the dubious premise that the 2010 result hasn't been superceded by more recent events.
3) A key part of the rationale for claiming a "consensus" in favour of Calman was always that of a dual mandate encompassing both Westminster and Holyrood - the unionist majority at Holyrood (which was complacently assumed to be virtually permanent) was endlessly cited as being just as critical a factor as the unionist majority at Westminster, and this interpretation was made concrete by the involvement of the devolved parliament in the scrutiny of the Scotland Bill. Having made such a song and dance of the arithmetic at Holyrood when it suited the unionist case, it simply won't wash for Rennie to now claim that a Westminster mandate alone is sufficient to proceed as if nothing had changed. The logic of the previous stance surely demands that a compromise between the two parliaments must now be reached.
Incidentally, does anyone remember the glee with which the London coalition partners pointed out a year ago that their combined vote in Scotland at the 2010 election exceeded the 32.9% support that the SNP secured in winning office? They must feel so nostalgic for the days when they could fall back on that line...