Last night, the first of the ‘Presidential’ leaders’ debates on STV was neither decisive nor the kind of riveting television that will spark political interest among the wider public. But press consensus (and not just my opinion) is that Mr Salmond came out the clear winner. In the opening exchanges about the achievements of the SNP administration, he kept it simple, stressing the scrapping of prescription charges, help for pensioners through the council tax freeze and free education.
Labour’s Mr Gray got himself 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. He then tried to intervene on Mr Salmond which, again, didn’t work well. He looked like he was hectoring while Mr Salmond appeared more calm. It was almost as if, because Labour know how important these debates are in raising the profile and reputation of their leader, that Mr Gray pushed too hard, too early. Though he got better later, the damage was already done and Annabelle Goldie hand-bagged him several times for voting against budgets that gave Labour what they had asked for.
Worse, Mr Gray’s performance will not have made up ground his party is losing on other fronts. Yesterday’s STV poll had the SNP catching up from a 15% disadvantage to be neck-and-neck (37% vs 38%) and today’s Hootsmon poll has the SNP reaching its 40% target while Labour trails them for the first time in years.
But perhaps most damning verdict is in the Spectator, entitled Iain Gray’s Remarkable No-Man Band. If Scottish politics has—for good or ill—become increasingly presidential, then it’s clear who has the inside track to the job.