Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling at the end their live television debate in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Scottish debate: Salmond needed a win, but Darling triumphed

The Better Together head’s mastery of the detail consistently gave him the edge. 

Alex Salmond came to tonight's debate with Alistair Darling needing a clear victory. With just six weeks to go until the independence referendum, the Yes campaign continues to trail by a double-digit margin. The Scottish First Minister needed an unambiguous win to convert the "don't knows" to his camp. But he didn't get it. Instead, it was Darling who topped the post-debate Guardian/ICM poll by 56 per cent to 44 per cent (almost identical to the No campaign's current lead). 

In nearly two hours of debate, Salmond failed to land any knockout blows on the Better Together chair, whose mastery of the detail consistently gave him the edge. Worse, he came unstuck on the question that most animated the studio audience: what currency would Scotland use if denied a monetary union by the rest of UK?

Salmond's reply - that it would use the pound without permission (as Panama and Ecuador use the dollar) - was greeted with cries of derision"What is your plan B? We need more than 'it'll be alright on the night,'" said one incredulous audience member. In his closing statement, Salmond appealed for the voters to choose "ambition over fear", but tonight he failed to address their biggest fear of all: that an independent Scotland, with no lender of last resort (the role currently filled by the Bank of England), would be left helpless in the event of another financial crisis. 

Compared to the defining issue of the currency, Salmond's concerns often appeared petty and esoteric. His opening gambit in the second round - why does the No campaign refer to itself as "Project Fear" (it doesn't, replied Darling) - roused the nationalist faithful, but it did nothing to persuade the unconverted. 

Throughout the debate, Salmond sought to tie Darling to the toxic Tories, mentioning David Cameron and George Osborne's names at every opportunity. But faced with this baiting, Darling largely kept his cool. Asked how he felt about Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond supporting EU withdrawal, he amusingly quipped that he and Salmond could find themselves on the same side in that referendum. The more pertinent question was when and how an independent Scotland would achieve EU membership. "The one thing you can't accuse the EU of is moving at speed," the former chancellor drily observed.

After losing most of the exchanges, Salmond roused himself at the end, romantically declaring that "no one, no one will do a better job of running Scotland than the people who live and work in this country". But it is Darling's attack on the Yes campaign's "guesswork, blind faith and crossed fingers" that is more likely to stay with viewers. 

In a race that has proved more static than many expected, tonight's debate was one of the few possible game changers for Salmond. It is some measure of his failure, then, that the case for independence has emerged not stronger, but weaker. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.