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.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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