SALMOND HIT BY PUTIN ROW; Support for the Union Soars to 58pc in Latest Poll as SNP Leader Is Savaged in Holyrood for Praising Russian Tyrant; Salmond on Ropes over Putin Plaudit; after a Calamitous Week, First Minister Shows the Strain during Grilling by MSPs
Byline: Alan Roden and Gareth Rose
ALEX Salmond was left reeling last night as a new poll revealed a dramatic surge in support for the Union amid growing anger over his backing for Vladimir Putin. As the First Minister was savaged at Holyrood over his glowing praise for the Russian tyrant, the survey showed that Better Together had opened up a 16-point lead over the Yes campaign.
The YouGov study put support for the Union at 58 per cent, with backing for independence languishing on 42 per cent.
The poll of 1,200 Scots was carried out over four days, including the day a major political row broke out over Mr Salmond's comments about Putin.
With undecided voters stripped out, it shows a marked swing in support to Better Together when compared with a recent ICM poll which put the Yes camp on 48 per cent and No on 52 per cent.
It also suggests that momentum for Mr Salmond's campaign may have come to a halt after a series of encouraging polls.
However, the importance of persuading pro-Union Scots to cast their votes on September 18 became clear yesterday, as a study found that supporters of independence are far more likely to turn out.
This could boost the final Yes tally by 2 per cent, which could be pivotal in a close race. Record numbers of Scots have now registered to vote, including 80 per cent of 16 and 17-year-olds.
The new YouGov poll for Channel 4 News involved surveying 1,208 Scots between Friday, April 25, and Monday, April 28.
It came at the end of a week when Labour 'stamped its mark all over the referendum debate', with leader Ed Miliband bringing his Shadow Cabinet to Glasgow and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown appearing under the Better Together banner for the first time.
Then, on Monday, it emerged Mr Salmond had told GQ magazine that he admired 'certain aspects' of Putin's politics.
The Russian president has effectively outlawed homosexuality, defended the Syrian government's attacks on its own people and annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea.
But, while Mr Salmond said that he did not approve of a 'range of Russian actions', the First Minister added: 'He's restored a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing.' His comments sparked world-wide condemnation from groups such as Amnesty International, while the SNP leader received unwanted support from the Kremlin and pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk.
Mr Salmond has stubbornly refused to apologise to Ukrainians, and again flatly turned down the opportunity to say sorry during First Minister's Questions yesterday.
Observers agreed that it was one of the worst performances by Mr Salmond in the chamber for months.
His ministers looked uncomfortable as Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont told him: 'The reputation of the people of Scotland has been damaged.' Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said: 'The First Minister wants us to stand tall in the world, but does he not just look small?' Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said the First Minister 'continues to make poorly timed and badly judged interventions on foreign affairs'.
She added: 'How can we trust the First Minister to represent Scotland on the global stage when he so consistently gets it wrong? …