By Staff Reporter
- First Minister gives ‘heartfelt’ rallying speech behind closed doors to shell-shocked backbenchers as Yes campaign figures distance themselves
- Is argument for Scottish independence a “one-man crusade”
Serious questions are being asked by nationalists about Alex Salmond’s leadership of the campaign to break up Britain in the wake of his stunning defeat in the first referendum TV debate.
Normally ultra-loyal SNP MSPs demanded the First Minister show more passion for independence than he displayed during his lacklustre performance in Tuesday night’s STV debate, which he lost to Alistair Darling.
And a senior Labour MP, who is on a nationwide tour drum up support for keeping Scotland in the UK, said pro-independence supporters are blaming Mr Salmond for damaging their campaign.
Jim Murphy, the former Scottish Secretary and now Shadow International Affairs Secretary, said he no longer encounters pro-Salmond hecklers and there is a “crisis of confidence” in the First Minister.
Many observers are contrasting Mr Salmond’s poor performance against Mr Darling with his deputy Nicola Sturgeon‘s series of hugely successful TV debates against a whole series of Unionist politicians.
She has many fans in senior SNP ranks and is credited with getting former Scottish Secretary Michael Moore the sack and with giving Alistair Carmichael, Mr Moore’s successor, a torrid time in their first debate.
It is now being openly discussed at Holyrood whether she would do better than Mr Salmond in the Yes campaign’s lead role. He was forced to rally his shell-shocked backbenchers on Wednesday during a rare visit to the SNP’s private weekly group meeting at Holyrood.
In an extraordinary attempt to shore up support among his MSPs, he delivered what was described by attendees as a “heartfelt” speech explaining why he wants to leave the UK.
Senior nationalists held a strategy meeting at the SNP’s headquarters, round the corner from Holyrood, on Wednesday evening in the wake of the defeat.
Mr Darling, the leader of the pro-UK Better Together campaign, was declared the surprise victor in Tuesday night’s showdown on STV after Mr Salmond repeatedly refused to name his plan B currency.
The First Minister was booed by the audience as he repeatedly insisted George Osborne, Ed Balls and Danny Alexander were all bluffing that the remainder of the UK would refuse to strike a deal to share the pound.
In a bizarre performance that bemused viewers, Mr Salmond then asked Mr Darling whether Scots would be at greater risk of alien attack and would have to drive on the right side of the road after independence.
Mr Salmond’s first public engagement on Wednesday morning was at a conference for nationalist businessmen in Edinburgh, but he was around an hour and a half late following the first round of post-mortem discussions.
The SNP leader then went to the group meeting for his 64 MSPs, many of whom had appeared downcast, before delivering his rallying speech. One attendee expressed disappointment he had not delivered a similar performance during the debate.
“I want him to show the passion for independence that he showed to us. It was breath-taking and I’m not easily taken in,” the SNP source said.
“His commitment and compassion were absolutely on display. I hope we see that on the screen for other people now, because they don’t know the real man.”
But Murdo Fraser, a senior Tory MSP, said: “It is a sign of Alex Salmond’s desperation that he is left trying to convince even his own MSPs of the merits of the independence case.”
Mr Fraser, convener of Holyrood’s economy committee, said some Nationalist MSPs were questioning whether Mr Salmond had “lost it” and suggesting Ms Sturgeon take his place in the next contest against Mr Darling, scheduled to be broadcast on the BBC on August 25.
Patrick Harvie, co-leader of the pro-independence Scottish Green Party, told BBC Radio Two’s Jeremy Vine show: “The question on the ballot paper is should Scotland be an independent country, not do you want Alex Salmond running the Government or do you want the SNP in office for the next goodness knows how many years.
“What I think this campaign is about is more than one person. If the Yes campaign only attracts people who vote for Alex Salmond as First Minister that’s not 50 per cent.”
His comments were echoed by the far-Left Radical Independence Campaign, which told the Guardian it was planning a mass canvass to convince Scots their “movement is far bigger than Alex Salmond”.
Meanwhile, Mr Murphy said he has found during his 100-day tour of Scotland that the SNP “is now being disowned by increasing numbers of Yes voters across the country.”
In an article for the Telegraph, he said Mr Salmond had become “toxic” to undecided voters, adding: “At the start of my tour there was always half a dozen hecklers shouting Alex Salmond’s praises. But that’s not happening anymore. Those voices have fallen silent.”
The First Minister yesterday attempted to claim victory in the debate by arguing that an ICM opinion poll that declared Mr Darling the winner showed he had convinced more undecided Scots.
But Unionist parties said he was clutching at straws after the figures showed that the support for the Yes campaign had increased by only six voters during the two-hour contest.
Mr Salmond, who refused to take questions from the press, pointed to another figure showing 74 per cent of undecided voters thought he had emerged victorious but the ICM breakdown showed this was the equivalent of only 23 people.
Douglas Alexander, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, told BBC Radio Scotland: “I think last night will prove to have been a decisive moment in the defeat of the Yes campaign.”