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Annabel Goldie <em>Picture: Alexford</em>

Annabel Goldie Picture: Alexford

Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie gave the most striking and successful performance last night in what was a closely fought and fairly even leaders’ debate on the BBC.

Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray was much better than he had been during the opening debate, right back at the start of the campaign.

But even though Mr Gray was solid, competent and managed to score a couple of good points off Alex Salmond, he didn’t do enough to really raise himself up to or beyond the first minister’s level.

That was what he had to do to put Labour in the lead ahead of Thursday’s poll – and, although markedly better than before, he didn’t quite manage to do that.

Mr Salmond, the SNP leader, was as professional and composed as ever and although he didn’t win many of the exchanges, he won those that mattered to him: making a big impression with his arguments on independence and sectarianism.

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Tavish Scott, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, also performed better than in the first debate, but again found himself sidelined, both by the presence of the two candidates vying for the first minister’s job and then by Miss Goldie, who managed to elbow her way in to the debate in a way that Mr Scott couldn’t quite manage.

Once again, Miss Goldie’s more individual stance – of opposing universal benefits and arguing that students contribute to their own education – set her apart from the others.

But it was her waspish one-liners – at one point she implored the audience to make sure someone had the next first minister by the “short and curlies – that gave her a slight edge over her rivals.

All the party leaders finished close to each other, but, on performance, the order was first, Miss Goldie, second, Mr Salmond, third, Mr Gray and fourth, Mr Scott.

Overall, this was a much better debate than the first, which had been broadcast by STV. Glenn Campbell, the host, went straight to the key issues of the campaign.

The first question raised the issue of universal benefits and why a 60-year-old earning £40,000 a year should get a free bus pass.

Both Mr Salmond and Mr Gray were used to simply championing the rights of universal benefits, but now they had to justify them.

Mr Salmond warned of the costs of means testing, which was a valid point and a better answer than Mr Gray managed.

Both Miss Goldie and Mr Scott did better – particularly Miss Goldie, who remembered to talk to the questioner from the audience directly and to use her first name, and she finished with her main message of the evening.

“We have to consider what we can afford and what we cannot afford,” she said.

Mr Gray and Mr Salmond then got into difficulties with the next question, about job losses in the public sector. Both talked about pay restraint, but both were hazy and appeared unused to having to justify the promises made in their manifestos.

It was then, though, that the debate sparked into life with Mr Gray deciding to take on Mr Salmond directly. The Scottish Labour leader challenged Mr Salmond over his claim that more teachers had been employed under the SNP government.

Mr Gray was cheered when he claimed this to be untrue. Mr Salmond parried by arguing that most of the teachers had been lost by Labour-controlled councils, but the point had been made – and won – by Mr Gray.

Miss Goldie tried to set herself apart from the spat between the men in suits, appealing: “Who is going to get them under control, grabbing them by the short and curlies?”

The Conservative leader then took a more serious line, admitting that she could not protect every public sector job and then astutely broadening the debate out by reminding everybody that the public sector wasn’t the only part of the economy that was having trouble, that there was a big private sector out there too and it also had to be nurtured and protected.

Mr Scott found himself put into an uncomfortable position when asked bluntly if he would “do a Nick Clegg” and break his promises if he got a “whiff of power”.

“No,” replied Mr Scott, which was as wise and as decent an answer as he could give, in the circumstances.

Miss Goldie again showed that she wasn’t afraid to duck the big issues when sticking to her unpopular approach to higher education, arguing that it was not realistic to promise “free education” as the others were doing.

She was applauded by a sizeable group within the audience too, for saying it, which suggests there may not be the unanimity around this issue that the other parties think there is.

And, in the line which may resonate more with voters than any other, she warned – wagging a finger at the three men alongside her – “You are going to see a lot of humble pie being eaten big-time by these three in years to come.”

Of the others, Mr Salmond was the most cogent and convincing in his response, arguing passionately that “free education is at the heart of the Scottish tradition in education”.

With neither Mr Scott nor Mr Gray convincing on this subject, the dividing line was clear – practical warnings over cost from Miss Goldie versus a declaration of principle from Mr Salmond.

That was really the main theme of this debate. As the subjects moved from renewables to independence, Miss Goldie took a down-to-earth approach, warning of the costs involved and urging realistic (and sometimes uncomfortable) solutions to them, while Mr Salmond urged the audience to consider the wider, more theoretical and principled implications.

As a result, there appeared to be a clear ideological drive behind the first minister’s answers, while Miss Goldie appeared to give the most rational responses – guided at all times but the financial realities of Scotland’s position.

Mr Gray and Mr Scott kept in the hunt, but neither managed to assert themselves above this now-dominant narrative.

The final question offered the leaders the chance to make a witty and lasting impression. Asked what the title of their autobiography would be, the three men could only come up with lame responses.

Mr Salmond talked about winning re-election, for Mr Gray it was “jobs, jobs jobs” (which is slightly ironic as he may have a new job in the not-too-distant future if Labour loses heavily on Thursday) and Mr Scott rambled on about “an island life” and his home on Shetland.

Miss Goldie did have more thinking time than the others, but her response that it was “always good to kick a politician’s posterior” had the merit of being the only vaguely and witty response of the four.

It showed that Miss Goldie has the (limited) ability to think on her feet while the others merely repeated a version of a campaign slogan.

If she hadn’t already edged the debate by then, she would have done so anyway with her final answer.

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