Alex Salmond emerged as the winner of the first Scottish leaders’ debate of the election campaign tonight – largely because Labour leader Iain Gray didn’t manage to do enough to knock the First Minister off his stride.
The STV set-piece event saw the four party leaders pitched in together in front of a clearly partisan audience, with each of the parties represented by a group of their own activists in the Glasgow Piping Centre.
In a wide-ranging debate, which featured a number of subjects from the release of Abdelbasset al-Megrahi to student funding, and from local income tax to apprenticeships, Mr Salmond appeared the most composed, clear and forthright throughout.
Mr Gray came on to his game later on, performing better as the debate wore on, but in the opening exchanges – first when he tried to talk over the First Minister and then when he refused to answer a series of questions from Bernard Ponsonby, who was chairing the debate for STV – he suffered and found it hard to recover.
By the time the hour-and-ten-minute programme finished, there was little to choose between the performances of Mr Gray and Mr Salmond, but the damage – as far as the Labour leader was concerned – had been done by then.
Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Conservative leader, and Tavish Scott, the Liberal Democrat leader, tried their best to elbow their way into the Salmond–Gray battle and both did reasonably well.
However, as the first real public contest for the job of First Minister, this was a battle between the Labour and SNP leaders.
In the opening exchanges about the achievements of the SNP administration, Mr Salmond kept it simple. He stressed the scrapping of prescription charges, which will happen on Friday, help for pensioners through the council tax freeze and free education.
Mr Gray got a little bogged down on jobs and the economy, running through an argument about jobless levels which didn’t carry the same punch as the First Minister’s lines.
The Labour leader then tried to intervene on Mr Salmond – which, again, didn’t work as well as he had hoped. He looked like he was hectoring while Mr Salmond appeared more calm.
It was almost as if, because Labour strategists know how important these debates are in raising the profile and reputation of their leader, Mr Gray tried a little too hard, too early in the debate.
It didn’t get any better when he was skewered by Mr Ponsonby over council tax. Wasn’t it true, Mr Ponsonby asked, that, had Labour been in charge for the past four years, council tax bills would have been higher?
After flannelling for several seconds, Mr Gray at last found the comeback he needed.
Yes, that was possible, he conceded, but then he added: “But it is possible there would have been 3,000 more teachers in our classrooms, 1,000 more classroom assistants. The problem with the council tax freeze is not the freeze, it is whether it is fully funded or not.”
This decent response seemed to compose Mr Gray and, after that, he settled down, calmed down and grew in stature.
His high-point came when the two leaders got bogged down in the level of modern apprenticeships and Mr Gray related a tale of when he came to see Mr Salmond in Bute House to negotiate over the Budget and how Mr Salmond had taken his advice and taken on board Labour’s suggestions.
It showed the right conciliatory and consensual touches as well as the edge of gravitas Mr Gray needed.
As for the First Minister, he was helped to a large extent by the vocal support of many SNP supporters in the audience, but he gave a confident and assured performance.
It was clear that, with the poll at the start of the programme showing a collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote, both Mr Salmond and Mr Gray were doing their best to appeal to the wavering Lib Dem vote.
Mr Salmond did this well on student finance, on petrol prices and on the Lockerbie bomber – where he was clear that the principle of compassion was at the heart of the controversial decision.
“People do not necessarily vote for political parties because of their record at the time, they vote on whether they did what they believe to be right, whether they acted out of principle,” he declared.
Ms Goldie also stuck to her principles, defending her belief in a graduate contribution despite opposition from the other three leaders, and holding out against some aggressive questioning from Mr Ponsonby over the coalition cuts and likely job cuts.
Mr Scott performed solidly, particularly when dealing with the difficult question of student finance, and managed to avoid being tripped up over his party’s record in coalition.
However, what was most startling about the debate was what was not included, rather than what was.
With the Scottish budget already heading down next year, whoever wins the election is going to have to cope with less. This is the context to this election and neither of the main parties has clearly articulated a position on this.
Both appear to want to keep promising more and more, yet, despite Mr Ponsonby’s determination to hammer the leaders on other issues, he didn’t get the time – or the chance – to question them on this key issue.
But there are more debates to come. Mr Gray, for one, will appreciate that because, after tonight, he has to come from behind to persuade the voters that he is better than Mr Salmond – certainly in debating terms.