A contrast in styles but Salmond has questions to answer

As heavyweight contests in Scotland go, Alex Salmond versus Alistair Darling tonight might not have quite the explosiveness of the boxing at the Commonwealth Games last week, but will be infinitely more intriguing. And the consequences of one of combatants achieving a knockout (figuratively rather than literally) will have much further reaching ramifications.

The debate promises to be an interesting contrast in styles: Alex Salmond the more extrovert and confident orator who will likely make an emotional appeal, and Darling the dourer speaker likely to rely on facts and evidence to appeal to the head more than the heart. How significant this debate is depends on who you talk to: some pollsters believe the Better Together campaign has now opened up a lead of more than 20 points, which would suggest a bridge too far for the independence campaign. Others believe the margins are far tighter, with the outcome of this debate being a determining factor in whether Scotland remains within the Union.

At first glance, a debate would seemingly favour Alex Salmond as the more natural orator, and indeed most political strategists expect him to win this evening. But it remains to be seen how much of a win Salmond needs in order to make Scottish independence more likely. To return to the boxing analogy, is a points win enough or does he need to take some risks and go for the outright knockout?

The likelihood is the former, and this where the format of the debate – in which the participants will be able to cross examine each other – may help Alistair Darling, although it is a format that will put the former Chancellor under considerable pressure. The format of the debate means that Mr Salmond will have to face some tough questions and give some convincing answers on issues such as membership of the European Union, currency, and the future defence of an independent Scotland – issues that have posed problems for the Yes campaign to date. He will also need to address business concerns in Scotland and the economic case made by Better Together that Scotland would be financially worse off as a result of independence – an argument made again today in a new report from Fiscal Affairs Scotland.

Mr Darling, in contrast, can fall back on the commitments of the three main UK parties that Scotland would have new and wider reaching tax and legal powers in the event of a no vote. And this might offer a nice compromise to undecided voters, who may plump for more autonomy rather than full independence.

It’ll be an intriguing affair and will sound the starting gun on the final stages of the campaign. But don’t underestimate the influence tonight’s debate might have.

To finish the boxing analogy, seconds out…