As a politician, Alistair Darling is renowned for his calm and reassuring manner (most famously during the financial crisis). But interviewed on The Andrew Marr Show this morning on Scottish independence, he appeared distinctly rattled. As I tweeted during the programme, he sounded like an embattled football manger giving a post-match interview after a bad result.
The bad result, in this case, was a new Panelbase poll (commissioned by pro-independence website Wings over Scotland) putting the Yes vote up four points to 41 per cent, the joint-highest level of support recorded since the campaign began, and the No vote up one to 46 per cent. When the “don’t knows” are stripped out, the gap stands at 53-47.
Darling responded by pointing out that Panelbase surveys traditionally favour the No campaign and that “[if] you look at the change from this month to last month, it hasn’t changed one bit. Our lead is exactly the same.” This is true (the gap stood at 53-47 in Panelbase’s previous poll), but it also means that the earlier survey can’t be dismissed as an outlier. With more than five months to go, the No side’s lead really has narrowed from 12 points (the highest lead recorded by Panelbase) to just six. Darling also rightly noted that “every single poll conducted this year and last year as well shows us with a consistent lead”. But given Alex Salmond’s reputation as a strong finisher, this will be of little comfort to many on the Unionist side.
I expect that Darling’s tetchy performance, which may have been an attempt to offer some much-demanded passion, will lead to further briefing against him. The Tories, who were warned by Lynton Crosby at the end of last year that the Yes campaign was on course for victory, increasingly fear that his prophecy will be fulfilled.
If the No side is to win, and to win convincingly, one figure who will need to play a bigger role than at present is Gordon Brown. Brown is one of the few Unionist politicians that Salmond concedes poses a threat to the nationalists. He is significantly more popular in Scotland than he is south of the border and has a strong connection with the working class swing voters that the SNP hopes will break for the Yes side in September. At the 2010 general election, while Labour’s vote fell by 6.2 per cent across the UK, it rose by 2.5 per cent in Scotland and the party held onto all 41 of its seats. This was thanks in no small part to Brown, whose own constituency vote rose by 6.4 per cent.
His decision not to join the cross-party Better Together campaign, in favour of working with the United with Labour group, also makes it imposssible for Salmond to dismiss him as a Tory proxy. More than anything else, he is capable of displaying the authentic passion that so many are demanding from the No campaign.