After being defeated by Alistair Darling three weeks ago, and with the Yes side still trailing in the polls, Alex Salmond needed a clear win in tonight's Scottish independence debate - and a win was exactly what he got (a Guardian/ICM poll awarded him victory by 71-29 per cent). From his opening statement onwards, Darling was hesistant and stilted, perhaps unnerved by his new champion status. Salmond, by contrast, with little to lose, skilfully deployed every weapon in the nationalist armoury.
Having been skewered by the Better Together head on the currency question in the first debate, he smartly changed tack. Rather than dismissing Westminster's pledge to veto a currency union as "bluff and bluster", he demanded a "mandate" to negotiate for one, casting Darling as a man unprepared to accept the will of the people. While again refusing to reveal his "plan B" (only adding to the confusion when he boasted he was offering "three plan Bs for the price of one"), he turned the debate to his advantage by forcing Darling to concede "of course we can use the pound". By this, the former chancellor merely meant Scotland could use sterling without permission (an option that would leave it without a central bank and a lender of last resort), but Salmond was astute enough to spin this as a dramatic concession from the "scaremongering" No side. Expect to see Darling's words emblazoned on Yes posters across the country.
After failing to shift the polls in his favour by making a positive case for independence, Salmond turned negative tonight. He warned that the preservation of Westminster rule would threaten the NHS and decried food banks, the "bedroom tax" and Trident. It was low politics: health is already fully devolved to the Scottish parliament and Darling is no supporter of welfare cuts, but it worked. The Better Together head found himself forced to make excuses for the status quo and struggled to articulate an alternative vision. He falsely claimed that NHS privatisation did not take place under Labour (it did, as Andy Burnham has conceded) and that funding for the service was guaranteed to rise over the coming years (it isn't). "You're in bed with the Tories!", cried Salmond, a line that will resonate in a country where, famously, there are more giant pandas (two) than Conservative MPs (one).
All of the Unionist parties are agreed that more powers will be transferred to Holyrood in the event of a No vote, but tonight the vagueness of their words caught up with Darling. Repeatedly challenged by Salmond to name three job-creating powers that they were offering the Scottish parliament, he floundered, prompting the First Minister to declare: "You just made a wonderful case for voting Yes in this referendum."
Salmond got the win he needed, then, but at this stage of the campaign the question is whether it will make any difference. TV debates rarely determine the outcome of elections and referendums (recall how swiftly "Cleggmania" faded in 2010) and the undecided, ever more sceptical of both sides' propaganda, may well have been turned off by Salmond's boisterous style. But with three weeks to go, tonight's result will re-energise the Yes campaign and give them hope that the SNP leader can yet again snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Update: It looks like my instincts were right. The ICM poll recorded the same level of support for independence after the debate (49-51) as before it. If those numbers make the race look remarkably close, it's worth noting the caveat added by the pollster: "It should be stated this this sample was pre-recruited on the basis of watching the debate and being willing to answer questions on it immediately after the debate ended. While we have ‘forced’ it via weighting to be representative of all Scots, it SHOULD NOT be seen as a normal vote intention poll as it is premised on a different population type i.e the profile and nature of Scots who watched the debate is different to a fully nationally representative sample of Scots."
In other words, Yes voters may be more likely to have watched the debate and to have answered questions on it.