Nine points behind - has Alex Salmond lost before he's begun?
Another poll sees Yes campaign lagging - but SNP could have a secret weapon in David Cameron
AS SCOTLAND'S First Minister Alex Salmond launched his blueprint for independence today, the latest opinion poll showed his Yes campaign trailing the No campaign by nine per cent. Is it all over for Salmond before it's even begun?
There have now been more than 30 polls on Scottish voters' attitudes to leaving the UK since the beginning of 2012. All but one of them has put Salmond's campaign behind.
Panelbase, who carried out the latest survey, have generally been more favourable to the SNP, with No campaign leads in single figures. But other pollsters have regularly given double-digit leads to the No - or Better Together - campaign led by former Chancellor Alistair Darling. In September, You Gov put the gap at 20 points; a month previously, they had the divide at a seemingly hopeless (for Salmond) 30 points.
Commenting on the latest poll, Ivor Knox of Panelbase said: "If patriotism and national pride were the key issues, Yes would win hands down. They aren't: while most voters are proud to call themselves Scots, people remain unconvinced that independence would bring economic benefits."
Analysing the findings on the website What Scotland Thinks, John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said: "Panelbase once again presents a more optimistic picture for the Yes side than any other pollster. However, like everyone else, they also find that the balance of public opinion remains resistant to all attempts to shift it - and that thus the Yes side continues to be behind."
By contrast - and not surprisingly - Yes Scotland chief executive Blair Jenkins claimed the Panelbase poll was evidence that his campaign was gathering momentum. He made the point that a swing of only five per cent between now and the September 2014 referendum would give the pro-independence camp victory.
That is only true, of course, if you put your faith in Panelbase - and the SNP do. It was the Scottish Nationalists who commissioned Panelbase to carry out the only poll so far to have shown a Yes majority.
Conducted at the end of August, it put the Yes camp ahead by just one point - 44 to 43, with the Don't Knows on 13. But critics have pointed out that this result was achieved with the help of a couple of introductory questions nudging respondents towards pro-independence.
Who do you trust to take the best decisions for Scotland: the Scottish government or the Westminster government? was one of them and it got the response: Scottish government 60, Westminster 16.
Another question, Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: ‘Scotland could be a successful independent country'? drew the response: Yes I agree 52, No I disagree: 37.
Desperate tactics? You could argue that - or you could say the questions were logical because they reflected how the argument for independence would be framed in the year of campaigning leading up to the referendum.
As John Curtice put it at the time: "If the Yes side could persuade people that independence would deliver a successful country free of unwanted Westminster rule, then they might well drive people into their camp."
The SNP remains convinced that there's everything to play for and they got a surprising boost last week from Westminster's new Lib Dem Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael who told The Guardian that the large number of undecided voters meant a win for the No campaign was far from certain.
His view was echoed by Mike Smithson of Politicalbetting.com who argued that although more than 90 per cent of the wagers on the referendum have been on a No victory, no one should underestimate Alex Salmond's ability to turn it around.
Before the Holyrood elections in May 2011, the SNP were trailing badly in the polls while Labour were riding high and looked set to win back power in the Scottish parliament. In the event, the SNP won an overall majority (which, of course, led to the upcoming referendum being possible).
Says Smithson: "A lot of this was down to the appeal of Salmond himself and [he] could easily find a way to present next September's choice in a form that will ease the concerns of doubters."
So, will it all come down to Salmond and his undoubted charisma? Not if you believe the argument put forward by Spectator columnist Alex Massie among others, that Salmond could have a secret weapon in David Cameron.
It is no secret, says Massie, that Alistair Darling, in charge of the anti-independence Better Together campaign, is worried that a Tory recovery in England - one strong enough to make a second term for Cameron look likely - might persuade Scottish Labour supporters to vote for independence. In short, "Alex Salmond dearly desires a strong David Cameron".
Those Scottish Labour supporters are crucial. One million of them voted in the 2010 general election. As Massie argues, most polls show only 15 per cent of them are currently open to voting for independence, while Salmond needs far more of them - a good 30 per cent at least - to vote Yes if the Scots are to win independence.
That's "tough sledding" as Massie put it, but if the UK economic news continues to be positive, and Cameron begins to look good for another term in Downing Street, that could turn the Scottish Labour vote in Salmond's favour.