Alex Salmond had to give a rallying speech to Scottish National party backbenchers after his aides began an inquest into his faltering performance in Tuesday night's first live TV debate on independence.
The first minister addressed a group meeting of despondent SNP MSPs at Holyrood on Wednesday lunchtime, hours after appearing to lose a crucial TV debate on independence against the no campaign leader Alistair Darling.
A snap poll by ICM for the Guardian, of 512 viewers in Scotland, had found that Darling won the debate by 56% to 44% after the former chancellor and the first minister clashed over his plan B for Scotland's currency options and the viability of Scotland's independence.
But Salmond told his backbenchers that there was evidence in the ICM poll that more undecided voters had swung to support a yes vote during the debate, and argued that its headline result reflected the current level of opposition to independence amongst voters.
The leader insisted the party had to focus on swing, uncommitted voters rather than worry about its critics and opponents. A further, more detailed poll by Ipsos Mori on Tuesday found support for independence had risen four points to 40%, with more undecideds switching to a yes vote, while backing for a no vote remained static at 54%.
His aides insisted that during the STV debate Salmond had succeeded in spelling out his democratic case for a yes vote, raising popular issues including the bedroom tax and food banks; the ICM poll found many more voters preferred his personality to Darling's.
But they admitted he fumbled his opening statement, and allowed Darling to dominate thereafter on Scotland's currency options. He slipped further later, by raising tongue-in-cheek claims by his opponents about driving on the right after independence, or the statistics of alien attacks.
"We can always review and adjust, but in terms of style and substance, I think Alex was in the right place," said one close adviser.
A peak audience of 920,000 watched the debate on STV, which was not broadcast elsewhere in the UK.A further half a million tried to follow proceedings online, but the company's online player frequently failed to work. A second, and most likely final, TV debate is expected on the BBC on 25 August.
Pollster John Curtice of Strathclyde University argued that the debate was closer than the Guardian/ICM poll initially suggested because the 56/44 margin broadly reflected the current state of the wider independence polls. But writing for the Guardian, he argued: "For the no side, however, a draw is good enough" because there were higher expectations of Salmond that he would win the debate.
Darling's team also conducted an inquest into his performance, and admitted they felt he had failed to make a powerful enough emotional or practical case for remaining part of the UK.
They argued that the former Labour chancellor had also failed to combat Salmond's challenge over whether he agreed with David Cameron's view that Scotland could be a success after independence, said one campaign insider. But the inquest was less intensive: "During a 90-minute debate, you're not going to be pitch-perfect every minute," said one source.
The clash over currency otherwise dominated the post-debate political agenda on Wednesday, after Salmond's opponents sought to goad the first minister by mocking up a pound coin decorated with his portrait paraded by Labour's shadow Scottish secretary, Margaret Curran.
Salmond fought back at a pro-independence business event by insisting that a sterling pact between Scotland and the rest of the UK was the only realistic option for both countries, partly because a yes vote in September's referendum would give his government "a sovereign mandate" to demand it.
He said using the pound without a formal pact – an option known as "sterlingisation" or the Panama option – was "quite attractive", but insisted the Treasury would never allow that to happen because it would let Scotland walk away from more than £100bn in debt. "No UK chancellor would allow himself to be in a position where an independent Scotland gets away scot-free without the debt," Salmond said.
The currency dispute hinges on whether the UK government will definitely veto any sterling currency union with Scotland if there is a yes vote, following the chancellor George Osborne's pledge to block a pact in February. Osborne, Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, and Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury, are adamant a single currency would be too risky to contemplate.
Deborah Orr, page 28
Leader comment, page 30
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