There were distressing scenes at Bute House last night when the First Minister bowed to the inevitable and conceded to SNP party workers and aides that he was running scared of Alistair Darling.
Journalists watched as he was helped from the car supported on either side by white-coated staff. His hands were seen shaking and his lip was trembling. “I’ve never seen him so pale”, said a photographer. “In the flashlight he looked like a ghost.”
His press adviser Campbell Gunn took the unusual step of providing a full briefing for correspondents by phone because of the grave nature of the First Minister’s condition.
He first gave reporters the short official statement issued on behalf of the government.
It read: “It is with great sadness that the Scottish government announces the temporary departure from the political scene of the First Minister Alex Salmond. He is receiving medical advice for a nervous condition. He has been placed in residential confinement for assessment. We anticipate he will return to duty in the coming weeks. Family and friends have been informed. There will be daily bulletins on his progress.”
Mr Gunn confirmed that Mr Salmond had been shown a copy of an article in today’s Sunday Herald written by Mr Darling, leader of the Better Together campaign, in which he accused Mr Salmond of avoiding a televised debate with him because he was “running scared”.
The spokesman said a copy had arrived by email at Bute House last night and was shown to Mr Salmond during a late night supper. “He just froze”, said Mr Gunn. “He dropped his fork and didn’t eat another bite. Moira said it was the first time he’d ever failed to finish a chicken biryani.”
Mr Salmond is known to fear Mr Darling’s searing wit in debate, his imperturbable cheerfulness and unrelenting positive message.
“It’s disappointing it’s come to this,” said Mr Gunn. “I prepared a full brief for him.
It detailed how Mr Darling was in charge when the country went into the worst financial meltdown since the Great Crash.
How he helped devise the failed regulatory system that allowed the bankers to crash the economy.
How he used taxpayers’ money to bale out the banks but bankers still get multi- million pound bonuses.
How the Americans already have all their bank bail-out money back with interest and we may never get ours returned.
How he closed thousands of British Post Offices leaving rural areas unserved.
How he ripped off pensioners who had their benefits halved and encouraged them to start private schemes which were then mis-sold.
How as a lawyer in the Cabinet he failed to ask to see the legal advice for going to war in Iraq.
How he is earning £160,000 a year in his spare time while earning two and a half times the national average salary to be a full-time MP.
How he changed his main residence on his parliamentary expenses to screw as much as he could from the taxpayer – four times.”
But Mr Salmond has been spectacularly wrong-footed by Mr Darling’s campaigning style.
“He thought Alistair would rise above the petty politics and name-calling and bring his considerable intellect to bear and provide a serious challenge to the First Minister. But he immediately sounded like a backbench Labour MP from deepest Lanarkshire. His speech in Haddington which said Scots using the pound after independence would become “serfs” left Mr Salmond grasping for a hold on reality, “ said Mr Gunn. He asked me: “Is Alistair saying we will wear sacking tabards, lose all our teeth and get rickets while gouging out a living from the barren soil?”
It is believed the transformation of Mr Darling from Big Beast at Westminster to Little Furry Animal in Scotland has dangerously weakened Mr Salmond’s confidence.
A spokesman for Better Together said: “He can hide in his bunker if he likes. Alistair is taking tap dancing lessons and learning how to sing to capitalise on his reputation as a Happening Guy. Watch how he winks at the camera in his next interview. I shouldn’t tell you this but he’s being mentored by Simon Cowell. I’ll let you know when his single is coming out. I think it’s a cover of Coward of the County.”