It was billed like a boxing bout. And from the moment heavyweights Boris and Alex loped onto the stage at YouTube’s Google HQ, we looked set for The Rumble in the (online) Jungle. The undercard for our Telegraph-HuffPost EU debate featured some spirited sparring from Priti Patel and Liz Kendall, but the main event was unmistakable.
In the end, it turned out to be The Thriller in the Manila Envelope, as reports and statistics were swapped over the pros and cons of Brexit. Salmond got his uppercuts in first, and had clearly done his research. Reuters had reported in 2012 that Boris had said the UK should ‘scrap the social chapter', the former First Minister declared. The Tory contender for the No10 title muttered his dissent.
Then Salmond landed his first big jaw-cruncher about the not-so blind, but ever-so-blond ambition of his opponent. “I think it’s a perfectly honourable position for you to become PM – but my worry is not with you wanting to become Prime Minister, it’s what you would do when you were Prime Minister”. This was part of a wider strategy of the Remain camp to paint Brexiteers as 'hard Right Tories' who want to privatise the NHS, slash and burn public service and workers' rights, and sacrifice the newborn.
Salmond neatly turned Vote Leave’s powerful slogan ‘Take Control’ into a weapon against Boris, suggesting it simply meant the former Mayor of London wanted to take control of Downing Street, not hand power to the people. An old bruiser who can still dance round the ring, the SNP veteran proved as effective a debater as his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, who had landed her own blows on Boris in the ITV debate last week.
And Salmond’s best moment came from his own training for the fight. As Boris trotted out his line that a ‘Bank of England’ report had shown rises in immigration led to cuts in wages, the ex-FM smelled blood. “Have you read it?” he asked, clearly suspecting the answer was a negative. And when Boris conceded "I haven't read the study..." (he’d merely cited it), Salmond was in his element. "I have taken the trouble to read the study..." The study - and he'd read it in some depth - had shown not a 2% cut in wages but a third of a penny in the pound. "You're scaremongering on wages!"
Perhaps in honour of the late, great Muhammad Ali, Boris looked like he was playing rope-a-dope, lulling his opponents into a false sense of security before hitting back with a mixture of bananas, bravado and a bit of buccaneering spirit that appeals to so many Brexiteers.
And it was on bananas that he got the best laugh of the night, turning Salmond’s ‘I’ve read the facts’ trick on him. When challenged on his yellow fruit obsession, Boris demanded of his opponent "How many EU directives are there on bananas?" Salmond had no idea, and Boris admonished him, saying he'd had to "take him to task" for his lack of research and clear unpreparedness. The audience liked his sheer chutzpah on that one.
The former Mayor of London also won applause for his line that the EU gave the UK 'no voice at all' sometimes, on things like protecting endangered species. He won points for getting Salmond to admit that Project Fear was a terrible thing. He even scored on why Brexit would be good for businesses like digital start-ups.
Yet Salmond couldn't resist some digital comebacks of his own, normally in the shape of a verbal V-sign. When Boris lamented the lack of housing, the SNP MP said with dry irony "If only Boris had become the Mayor of London!" Cue more laughs, this time at Bojo's expense.
The audience were clearly up for a proper contest and enjoyed it most when it got lively. And they loved Salmond's quote-attacks. At one point in the closing rounds, he cited a line from Boris on national security. The then Mayor had written: “Together with Nato, the European Community, now Union, has helped to deliver a period of peace and prosperity for its people as long as any since the days of the Antonine emperors.” The line was from Boris's Churchill biography, yet here he was two years later suggesting the EU was not part of keeping the peace in Europe.
Earlier, Kendall had won over some in the audience by saying 'EU red tape' was actually 'maternity pay, workers' rights..'. Patel too had won over one guy with her passionate case for why immigration was putting untold pressure on schools and hospitals.
Yet as with the ITV debate, it was Boris who was most in the spotlight (he had the good grace to grimace when referee Aasmaah Mir introduced him as 'de facto leader of the Leave campaign' but that's exactly what he now is).
Perhaps the most fascinating thing is how much Johnson has changed his game in this crucial final run-in of the EU referendum campaign. He started off earlier in the year pretty badly, with an early wobble about whether he actually did want to quit the EU or just wanted a Leave vote as a huge bargaining chip for a better deal within it. He had some ineffective performances on Marr and the Today programme. To make it worse, his Commons intervention on David Cameron in February was a flop, with the PM even ridiculing him with a line about not knowing any couples who had "begun divorce proceedings in order to renew their marriage vows.”
Yet in recent weeks, Boris’s performance has improved almost in line with Brexit’s popularity in the polls. He's had fun with the photo-ops, but his news TV clips have been ruthlessly on-message (just as he was in his election campaigns against Ken Livingstone). He learned out to play it straight on Marr and, more notably, just stood there took all the punches in the ITV debate as Angela Eagle, Nicola Sturgeon and Amber Rudd all laid into him. And in our own debate, he could often be seen visibly restraining himself, keeping his calm.
And calm Boris undoubtedly was over the issue of a second EU referendum. I asked whether, if the referendum result was a narrow one, the panel would rule out another go at the same issue. Priti Patel said she felt it was, as with the Scottish independence referendum, a "once in a generation" issue. Yet Boris was more surprising. He too said this was a "generational question" and the public expected politicians to govern, not to keep calling referenda every few years.
That's all fine, but there's more than a few Eurosceptics who won't like it. In what could be the next virility test in the Tory leadership race to replace Cameron, Tory MPs may back a candidate who is unequivocally in favour of another EU referendum, especially if they feel 'robbed' by a 'rigged' election. Perhaps that's why, when I pinned Boris down further on this after the debate, he said "I'm not wholly ruling it out".
But Salmond clearly thought Boris had a glass jaw for detail. He told me last week that Cameron would wipe the floor with his fellow old Etonian in any head-to-head TV debate. The reason? Because Cameron has had years prepping intensely for PMQs, while Boris riffed and ROFL-ed his way around the capital. It was no surprise therefore that Salmond went for him on detail, and on his own previous quotes. It wasn't so much Project Fear as Project Past, with Johnson's own quotes used to wound him.
Salmond's pay-off - "Jolly japes, isn't it?" - was acidly put, a summary that voting Leave would leave you in the hands of a man who treated politics as his own personal game. Boris, for his part, was bloodied but unbowed.
He didn't fall, but he certainly knew he'd been in a fight. And it's not over yet.
Suggested For You
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more