With the issues of the future of the NHS, the currency and oil revenues set to dominate the televised debate between the SNP First Minister and Better Together leader Alistair Darling tonight, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University has said that the onus is on Mr Salmond to come out as a strong winner.
The comments came as a poll of a key voter group – pensioners – showed that it is opposed to independence. A survey of 1,003 Scots aged 60 to 86 revealed that 55 per cent would vote No and 33 per cent Yes, with 12 per cent undecided.
As the two men gear up for their second debate ahead of the referendum poll on 18 September, Prof Curtice said a “draw” would be enough for Mr Darling, with pressure mounting on the First Minister to land a decisive blow.
Prof Curtice said that an analysis of the last six polls put No ahead on 57 per cent to 43 per cent.
“This is what it has mostly been since March,” he said.
Polling by ICM suggested that Mr Darling was a surprise winner in the first TV debate, but Prof Curtice said this has had little affect on the overall polls.
He told The Scotsman: “In reality it was a draw in terms of the polling figures for the campaigns, although an argument could be made for a slight increase for Yes.
“But a draw is good enough for Mr Darling and Better Together and that is all he has to do tonight because of where they are in the polls.” He added that Mr Salmond “needs a game changer” with the 18 September referendum just over three weeks away.
“Mr Darling’s weakness is the uncertainty of what will happen with more powers,” he said. “Because there are three different party positions, he cannot say for sure what will happen.”
But Prof Curtice also said that the first debate had little effect because the two men “focused on their comfort zones”.
He said: “Mr Salmond going on about Tories and social injustice plays well with people who have already made up their mind to vote Yes but not with un- decideds. Similarly, the currency issue for Mr Darling has no effect on the polls.”
He said that the one issue which would make a difference was “how Scotland would be economically better off” after a Yes or No vote.
“Neither of them tackled this issue even though the polling shows it could make a difference,” he said.
However, senior figures in Better Together were trying to downplay expectations of Mr Darling ahead of tonight’s debate, with many predicting a second victory for the former chancellor.
However, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, a key figure in the No campaign, said he expected Mr Salmond to deliver a “strong performance”.
He said: “Alex Salmond is a formidable debater and a capable politician.
“I fully expect that he has been working hard and will put in a strong performance on Monday evening, but he is selling a product that Scotland doesn’t want to buy.”
Mr Alexander said that a failure to answer questions on pensions and the currency, along with other key issues, was hindering the Yes campaign and meant it was struggling to get its core emotional message over.
He said: “For them to be in a position with just days to go until postal ballots drop where they cannot answer the most fundamental question in relation to what currency Scotland would use, when they cannot answer the most basic question in terms of the sustainability of health, education, pensions and public services on which we all rely, is genuinely not where they expected to be.”
However, the SNP made it clear that Mr Salmond would be focusing on the NHS, which he will argue is in danger with a No vote.
A spokesman for Mr Salmond said: “Douglas Alexander must inhabit a Westminster bubble where news from the real world doesn’t reach.
“An independent Scotland will keep the pound because it’s our currency too, and pensions and public services will be more sustainable after a Yes vote because Scotland’s economy is stronger than the UK’s.
“It is Westminster’s cuts and privatisation of the NHS which threaten Scotland’s health service, which is precisely why we need a Yes vote.”
He added: “The last three polls all show significant swings to Yes – with support as high as 48 per cent – and we are looking forward to the debate as an opportunity to communicate the positive message why Scotland can, should, and must, have the powers of an independent country.”
Mr Darling is expected to focus on Mr Salmond’s claims on oil, which opponents have described as “bogus”.
The issue has sparked claim and counterclaim over the weekend, with industry figure Sir Ian Wood claiming that the Scottish Government has over-estimated the number of barrels left in the North Sea.
He said there were 16.5 billion barrels as opposed to 24 billion, with tax revenues of £5 billion instead of £7bn.
However, Sir Ian has been contradicted by industry organisation Oil & Gas UK, which has backed the Scottish Government estimate of 24 billion barrels.
Tonight’s debate will be screened on BBC1 Scotland and across the rest of the UK on BBC2 from 8:30pm. It will be shown on C-SPAN in the US.
The 90-minute event will be staged at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow in front of 200 people selected by polling and research consultancy ComRes.
Where the battle lines will be drawn in tonight’s TV debate
This was the issue that won the first televised debate for Alistair Darling, with the three UK parties ruling out a currency union with an independent Scotland.
His killer question was: “I presume the flag is the Saltire, I assume our capital will still be Edinburgh, but you can’t tell us what currency we will have.
“What is an eight-year-old going to make of that? What’s plan B Alex?”
Mr Salmond’s response was: “We’ll keep the pound because it belongs to Scotland as much as to England.”
Mr Salmond’s most influential economic advisor, Crawford Beveridge, later admitted other options to the pound need to be considered.
He also said that if a currency union was ruled out, there were “several viable options”, of which sterlingisation – using the pound in the same way that Panama uses the US dollar – was one. He said: “We can see there are many other viable options. Every country has a currency and we are going to have one, too.”
Mr Salmond said he wished he had explained his position “in more detail”.
A REGULAR line in the referendum debate from the Yes camp is that a “Yes vote is the only way to save the NHS in Scotland”.
While this did not feature highly in the first televised debate, the issue has been pushed to the fore since and become one of the central rows.
In a speech after the debate Mr Salmond said: “It’s now well understood that voting yes will allow us to protect Scotland’s NHS from the threat to budgets here as a consequence of the cult of austerity and privatisation being forced on the NHS in England.”
But speaking at a Better Together event in Edinburgh, Labour former First Minister Lord Jack McConnell said the Nationalists “should withdraw their big huge lie” and called it a “desperate tactic”.
But in response Bob Thomson, a former Scottish Labour chairman and Yes supporter, said Lord McConnell and Mr Darling have “lost all credibility on the NHS”.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who has increased NHS spending at a time of cuts, called Alex Salmond a “desperate man” peddling a “desperate argument”.
North Sea oil
The future of the oil and gas industry has been at the heart of the independence debate throughout 2014 with a difference of opinion over how much wealth is left in the North Sea.
Alex Salmond has argued that there are 24 billion barrels of oil left with a value of up to £1.5 trillion. The Treasury said his figures are out of date, pointing to work by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility which predicted revenues of £61.6bn.
But in the run-up to the second debate, the respected oil company figure Sir Ian Wood said the “best outcome” would be between 15bn and 16.5bn barrels and that would depend on a new government in Holyrood offering more generous tax terms to oil explorers. He argued that rather than the £7bn worth of tax a year that the SNP expect, the real figure is likely to be £5bn.
However, this was challenged by Oil and Gas UK, the industry’s representative body.
It said: “Oil & Gas UK believes there is a broader range of outcomes and we remain of the view that there could be up to 24 billion barrels of oil and gas to recover.”