Equal rights for all

The first minister, of course, could see the attack coming.

Each week, as he prepares for questions in the chamber, he and his team try to second guess the lines and the language which will be pursued by his rivals.

Will it be droll satire on some bureaucratic Scottish government publication? (Inconceivable, I know, but such documents do occasionally survive the purge.)

Will it be sustained invective against the concept of independence? Will it be weary concern ("when, oh, when") soaring towards controlled fury?

This time, it was pound to a penny that Labour's Johann Lamont would pursue the claim that a member of Team Salmond had used an inappropriate metaphor about women, power and abuse in urging Scots to opt for independence.

And so Mr Salmond retaliated first by spotlighting International Women's Day (today) and the sterling contribution by women to life in Scotland (every day.)

As a bonus, he announced a new investment in science and engineering research aimed at women, offered by Edinburgh Napier University.

Who could say fairer than that? Well, Ms Lamont for one.

She averred that Joan McAlpine MSP, one of Mr Salmond's close advisers, had likened Scotland's place in the UK to that of a woman in an abusive marriage. Not, she thought, remotely appropriate. Offensive, indeed.

Not so, replied Mr Salmond. The column in the Daily Record had talked about the "abuse of power" in the political field. There had been absolutely no attempt to minimise issues such as domestic abuse.

In point of fact, Ms McAlpine's article had described Scotland's state through the metaphor of a marital relationship in which the woman is subordinate: "a talented, well-educated girl with good prospects and her own income" linked to a "domineering man".

He keeps control of the cash - with an implicit warning that "if she gets uppity, mind, her money will be cut."

Eventually, "she recognises the relationship for what it is - an abuse of power." So, no reference to domestic violence - but a clear analogy between domestic and political power-play.

Not an issue, argued Mr Salmond.

Ms Lamont was plainly dissatisfied with the assurances offered by the FM - and yet she chose not to pursue the precise question, diverting instead into a wide-ranging attack which was plainly designed to culminate in a scheduled sound-bite.

There is, of course, an underlying narrative here - beyond the attempt to target Ms McAlpine.

Labour calculates that Mr Salmond is relatively - I stress, relatively - weak in winning voting support from women.

In particular, they calculate that female endorsement for independence will be harder to win; a calculation apparently borne out by polling.

Mr Salmond himself seemed to acknowledge that differential, at least in part, when he said that the "vast majority" of men and a "substantial majority" of women had backed his party's pitch last May.

Image copyright bbc
Image caption Joan McAlpine made her remarks in a newspaper column

Still, as he might have added, a variable lead across the genders has the edge on being rejected, equally, by both men and women.

Meanwhile, Ms Lamont pursued her now familiar litany, listing the rich and powerful men connected to the first minister before concluding that it all left "Scotland bought and sold for Murdoch gold."

And the parcel o' rogues? Clearly, she felt she was looking at them. It was deft and well-structured - but somehow a little too disparate to hit home on the day.

The Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie, with fewer questions to ask, stuck to the issue of Rupert Murdoch, accusing the FM of a "grubby deal".

Mr Salmond disagreed, stressing that he had supported the police investigations and the Leveson inquiry - while noting that concern over press behaviour was not restricted to News International titles.

For the Tories, Ruth Davidson was also single-minded. The proposed additional levy on big retailers was, she said, bad news.

She had, however, prefaced this attack by confirming that, with certain assurances, the Tories now back minimum unit pricing for alcohol.

Mr Salmond duly seized the offered opportunity to welcome her conversion at length - while dealing rather more succinctly with the retail tax.

He is many things, the FM, but daft is not one of them.