Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling debate Scottish independence in the Kelvingrove Art Galleries in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Salmond triumphs over Darling – but will it make any difference?

The Scottish First Minister skilfully outplayed the Better Together head, but his victory may count for little. 

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. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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