Salmond v Darling debate: will tax pledge spike Scot's guns?

Don't bank on it: pre-referendum sweetener is unlikely to be enough to give Darling TV victory

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:42 ON Tue 5 Aug 2014

The timing of the cross-party pledge to give the Scots “the best of both worlds” if they vote to remain in the UK could hardly be more cynical, coming on the morning of the much-trailed STV debate between Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, and Alistair Darling, leader of the 'Better Together' - or 'No' - campaign. 

With the 18 September referendum just six weeks away, the Westminster party leaders clearly aren’t trusting the issue to Darling’s debating skills; indeed, many in Scotland are eagerly anticipating that Salmond will wipe the floor in the debate with Darling, who has been criticised for running a lacklustre campaign to keep Great Britain together.

Confirming that the three main parties are signed up to the pledge to give Scotland new powers to set their own tax and welfare rates, Osborne told Radio 4's Today programme this morning: "That is the best of both worlds: Scotland part of the UK with all the economic benefits that brings, but also Scotland in charge of things that matter to Scotland."

Just in case any Scots suspect this is a promise that won’t actually be carried out, Osborne stressed it was guaranteed to happen whichever party - or coalition of parties - wins the 2015 general election.

As Severin Carrell, The Guardian’s Scotland correspondent, writes today, the joint offer is clearly designed to “spike Alex Salmond's guns" ahead of tonight's debate.

But no one in their right minds will be putting their money on it having that effect. Salmond is quite capable of batting it away as a scurrilous political ploy and a spokesman has already popped up to say no one in Scotland will be "fooled".

As for the other issues up for grabs tonight, Carrell suggests Darling will attack the First Minister on "doubts over North Sea oil, a Scottish currency and on public spending" while Salmond will remind us that Darling was Labour Chancellor when the banking collapse of 2008 occurred and will blame him for the recession and subsequent welfare cuts.

The promise to the Scots wasn't the only sweetener being offered by the Chancellor this morning.

He also announced a £19 billion transport project to improve connections between Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle - five northern cities which, needless to say, include many marginal seats where votes will be crucial in deciding the outcome of the May 2015 general election.  

Osborne also hinted that taxpayers could be promised more bonuses than a city banker in his Autumn Statement, to be presented just before Christmas, when he will presumably justify his timely largesse by arguing that Britain’s economy is growing again.

Who would have thought it? The Chancellor swapping his sackcloth and ashes for a Santa Claus suit? ·