IN THE febrile world of Scottish politics a bad week for Alex Salmond equals a good week for Alistair Darling. That explains why the leader of the Better Together campaign is positively buoyant as he explains why he believes events of the past few days will be pivotal in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum.
Sitting in his constituency office in the west end of Edinburgh, Darling is mulling over a week that began with two MSPs quitting the SNP and ended with Salmond caught up in an almighty row that has severely dented his credibility.
The loss of two MSPs did not reflect well on Salmond, but it was the accusation that he had lied about an independent Scotland’s European Union membership that Darling claims has “knocked” the First Minister “off his pedestal” as self-styled father of the nation.
For Darling, the events of the last few days cannot be dismissed as a couple of bad days at the office for the SNP leader. The former chancellor believes they will come to be seen as a “defining” moment in the battle for Scotland’s future.
Darling was an onlooker when the questions over Salmond’s trustworthiness arose on Tuesday. They had their origins in a statement that Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond’s deputy, made to Holyrood on the independence referendum.
MSPs were still reeling from the resignations of Jean Urquhart and John Finnie in protest at the SNP’s new Nato policy when Sturgeon let a rather large cat out of the bag.
She revealed that the Scottish Government had yet to receive specific legal advice on an independent Scotland joining the EU. Hardly drawing breath, she went on to say that ministers would now give up the legal battle they were fighting to conceal whether or not such legal advice existed.
In common with other observers of the Scottish political scene, Darling’s jaw dropped. In that moment, Sturgeon had acknowledged that the Scottish Government had spent thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money to keep secret something that did not exist.
It was the cue for much scratching of heads from those who were naïve enough to believe that the legal advice had been sought and thought the Scottish Government had gone to court simply to prevent its publication.
How on earth, the headscratchers wondered, did we ever gain the impression that the legal advice existed? Some YouTube footage unearthed by Salmond’s opponents helped answer that question. There was a recording of Salmond’s appearance on Andrew Neil’s Sunday Politics television show in March.
When Neil asked Salmond if he had sought advice from his law officers on EU membership, the First Minister replied: “We have. Yes.” He told his interviewer that he was unable to reveal what it was.
It was this exchange, which appeared so at odds with Sturgeon’s parliamentary statement, that angered Darling.
“The fact that Alex Salmond allowed people to believe he had legal opinion on EU membership is the most damaging thing that’s happened to him as First Minister,” he declared.
“It leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth and will be viewed as a defining moment,” he added, claiming that Salmond’s role in the EU row has put the Yes campaign on the back foot in the early stages of the two-year build up to the poll.
When talking to the former chancellor, one senses the disdain and antipathy he feels towards Salmond. Clearly, Darling is relishing a personal battle with a man who, he says, has “got away with bluster” for more than a quarter of a century.
Bluster seems a reasonable enough charge this weekend, given the bristling indignation and verbal gymnastics on display when Salmond took the unusual step of returning to parliament in an attempt to wriggle out of his scrape.
Angrily denying Labour’s claims that he had been telling “bare-faced lies”, Salmond said that the full transcript of his conversation on the Sunday Politics showed that his position was entirely consistent with that of Sturgeon’s.
His explanation to Parliament was that he was speaking “in terms of general debate and in terms of the many legal opinions offered”. He was also talking about Scottish Government documents, which were “underpinned by legal advice from our law officers” and referred to an independent Scotland’s membership of the EU.
It was an explanation that has failed to convince his opponents, including Darling, who faces the challenge of going head to head with Salmond in arguably the most important political battle in Scottish history.
The journey to independence, according to Darling, is a “one-way ticket to a deeply uncertain future”. Nevertheless, Salmond is a formidable and skilful opponent.
However, it is apparent that Darling sees a weakness. When asked if he would be prepared to take on Salmond in a television debate, Darling shrugs and says: “I’d be very happy to do that as soon as he’s worked out what he’s going to argue for.”
It is a pointed remark, given the First Minister’s recent difficulties. It is also a jibe emphasising the pro-Union campaign’s belief that the SNP, as Darling puts it, “lacks credibility” on issues such as the currency of an independent Scotland and the defence of the nation.
That is why Darling has pledged to set up a rebuttal unit to deal with what Unionists believe are spurious economic claims from the SNP camp.
This unit will play a key part in the Better Together campaign and will combat what Darling dismisses as “ludicrous assertions” that an independent Scotland would automatically inherit EU membership as well as being handed a seat on the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee.
It is substantial issues such as these that will dominate the debate over the next two years. The danger for Salmond is that the memory of the last few days will linger and undermine the credibility of a politician who must persuade a large proportion of Scottish society that he can be trusted on the big issues.
The scale of the challenge facing the SNP leader was underlined in a poll published last week.
A YouGov survey of 1,000 adult Scots found that only 29 per cent agreed that Scotland should be independent. Fifty-five per cent disagreed with independence, while 14 per cent were undecided.
That poll was just one of a series of damaging blows that was to befall Salmond during his septimana horribilis.
As if losing two MSPs and being branded a liar were not enough, Salmond has had to put up with claims that his government had ignored the views of the public when it finally published its referendum consultation – days after the deal, which it was supposed to inform, had been signed.
There was also the screening of the You’ve Been Trumped documentary on BBC Two. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Donald Trump golf course saga are, the estimated one million viewers who tuned in would have found it difficult not to form an uneasy impression about what has gone on at a development controversially supported by Salmond in his own backyard.
As if all that wasn’t enough, there was further bad news from Spain when the Spanish foreign minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margall said an independent Scotland would have to go to the back of the queue and ask to be admitted to the EU.
“I’ve long suspected that the Spanish government would find it very difficult to just nod Scotland’s EU membership through,” Darling says. “He [Salmond] doesn’t have legal advice on an independent Scotland’s EU membership and, on top of that, one of the biggest member states has made it clear that it would make life difficult.
“It could take years to resolve and as the EU is so important to Scottish business and tens of thousands of jobs depend on it. We are talking again about a real warning shot being fired.”
There are those in the SNP who believe it is fortuitous that so many bad news stories have come home to roost in such a short space of time. Their argument is that the bad headlines will obscure each other. Instead of the drip-drip of bad news, Salmond has been hit by a flood that will be cleared up almost immediately.
Hence, Salmond’s attempt to kill off the EU controversy by referring himself to his advisers on the ministerial code. That move seemed to deflect attention in the short term. Only time will tell if it succeeds in the long run.
But as far as Darling is concerned, the fall-out from last week will have an impact on the future. It is a point that he makes when he argues that Salmond now “can’t be trusted” to set the rules for the referendum. In contrast, Better Together, Darling says, is “happy to be guided” by the Electoral Commission on campaign spending limits.
However, what of the inevitable criticism that will follow Darling as a former member of a failed Labour government led by Gordon Brown? He appears relaxed about this and goes as far as suggesting that Brown and even Tony Blair could play a more prominent role in the No campaign.
“I don’t have the slightest doubt that he’ll make further contributions to the campaign,” he says of Brown, and cites the “excellent speech on the social union” between Scotland and the UK in the former prime minister’s first real intervention in the independence debate this summer.
He declined to rule out a role for Blair, saying the prospect of the involvement of the controversial architect of New Labour and the man who took the UK into war in Iraq and Afghanistan was “not a problem at all”.
If the introduction of Blair to the Better Together campaign might be a gamble in the months ahead, Darling is already having to deal with accusations that he has leapt into bed with the Tories to defend the Union.
When asked about his association with the Tory brand – perceived as toxic by many Scots – Darling insisted that he has “no difficulty” with the party’s role in Better Together.
One suspects that Darling will continue to be comfortable working with toxic Tories for as long as questions continue to be asked about Salmond and the SNP’s own brand. «