Here’s David Torrance with the kind of acute observation I wish I’d thought of first. There is, he writes, a comparison to be drawn between Alex Salmond and Boris Johnson:

[Salmond's] approval ratings also remain remarkably high, but then Salmond enjoys a very specific sort of popularity. Asked who best “stands up for Scotland” he wins hands down, but if voters are asked if they agree with his vision for an independent Scotland then it’s two-to-one against. So Scots like Alex Salmond, but they only like him in a particular setting.

That context is the halfway house between full government and opposition otherwise known as devolution. As First Minister Salmond is both in government and in opposition, allowing him to take credit for all the goodies (free benefits) and blame London for everything that goes wrong (cuts). In such a context a politician with opportunistic flair thrives, as does the Conservative Boris Johnson as Mayor of London.

Take both men out of their comfort zone and I suspect they’d find relentless populism a lot harder to pull off, which is why I can neither see Boris as leader of the Conservative Party nor Salmond as Prime Minister of an independent Scotland. At the moment they enjoy the best of both worlds, but take their careers to their logical conclusions and they become just another couple of politicians.

This is good stuff. Now Eck enjoys greater power than Boris and I’m not sure he’d welcome the comparison with London’s clown prince but Torrance is right to suppose that their opportunism thrives in the debatable lands between power and responsibility. Each might be accused, not always unfairly, of confusing what is clever with what is important.

Most of all, however, each has managed the trick of being in power but pretending to be in opposition. Salmond in opposition to London; Boris in opposition to, well, politics. This has helped sheath them in Teflon.

I don’t really know what Boris has actually achieved in London but that’s a fruitless distraction from his appeal which is based on a certain zany style. Salmond has a longer record (and is stronger on detail) but, again, his fortunes have to a large extent been based upon a certain attitude or style as much as on real policy achievement. This too makes him a politician his opponents find maddeningly difficult to pin down, not least since he’s so adept at moving the parameters of whatever debate happens to be taking place at any given moment.

All of which, however, also makes me hesitant to pronounce the Yes campaign dead on arrival. The SNP were supposed to have been killed off several times these past twenty years (by a Labour government at Westminster, by devolution, by the financial crisis) and yet they’re still there, you know.

Salmond has contrived to pull off the trick of being more-or-less unassailable at Holyrood (for the time being) while also remaining the scrappy underdog. This ought not to make any sense but, like so much else in these Caledonian arguments, opposites are frequently equally true. So the SNP are, when you look at the polls dispassionately, in both a weak position and yet also campaigning from a position of some domestic strength.

Still, I think Torrance is right to wonder if the clock eventually runs out on Salmond’s style (Boris’s too, of course).

Tags: Alex Salmond, Boris Johnson, London, Scotland, Scottish independence, SNP, UK politics