Ed Balls paints Alex Salmond as polling-day punchbag

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SHADOW chancellor Ed Balls has said Alex Salmond's high public profile will prove to be a weakness in the SNP campaign for May's Holyrood election.

Ahead of his first trip to Scotland since landing the Treasury portfolio, Mr Balls told The Scotsman the First Minister's profile would make him a focal point for voters frustrated by his party's failings in government.

Mr Balls appeared to suggest Labour was happy to campaign on the party leaders' contrasting personalities, despite Mr Salmond's approval rating remaining high, while the SNP's support has fallen.

He said: "Of course, there is an advantage having been the First Minister for the past four years. But there is also a disadvantage because I think that Alex Salmond has made a lot of promises which he has not kept.

"We say down here in Westminster Nick Clegg and David Cameron have been breaking their promises for the last six months, but Alex Salmond is the one who wrote the script. He is the breaking-promises politician par excellence. What he said on the council tax, on policing, on class sizes … this long list of things."

Defending Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray, he said: "The issue in politics and when it comes to the ballot box is who do voters think will speak up for them and their families, for their town, for their country. In those election tests, Iain Gray has won and Alex Salmond has lost."

He pointed out that in the major electoral tests since Mr Gray became leader - the Glenrothes and Glasgow North East by-elections and last May's general election - Labour had won in Scotland against the SNP. "I want to help make it 4-0 for Iain Gray," he said.

The shadow chancellor described the SNP's pro-euro policy as "crackers" and said Mr Salmond's wish to adopt an Irish model for Scotland's economy during the banking crisis was "barmy".

Mr Balls admitted the biggest mistake made by the former Labour government, in which he played a major role at the Treasury, was the light-touch approach to the banks. "We weren't tough enough on regulating the banks, absolutely. That was, of course, our biggest mistake."

But he added: "It was a mistake made in America, in France and Germany, and all round the world, by the Bank of England, the Financial Services Authority and the Treasury. But I will hold up my hand and say we got that wrong."

He said he had played no part in the decision to award disgraced former Royal Bank of Scotland boss Sir Fred Goodwin a knighthood. But he would not be drawn on the future of the banks or whether they should be broken up, insisting that the Vickers Commission, set up by the government to look at the issue, should report first.

He claimed the recent "project Merlin" deal on bonuses struck between the Treasury and the banks had already undermined any proper banking reform.

He said: "It was a terrible mistake for [Chancellor] George Osborne to get into a trading game with the banks with project Merlin, and I think it will be an absolute catastrophe."

He also said cuts should be postponed to help the economy recover."

Mr Balls, who will be watching First Minister's Questions at Holyrood for the first time today, said MSPs should lead the way on future powers for the Scottish Parliament.

He said he would "consider" proposals being made for greater borrowing powers of up to 5 billion, but urged the Treasury to help "make progress" on the issue, insisting that "greater power and flexibility is the right approach".