A WEE thought for John Swinney: It may be time to ditch ABC.

Austerity, Brexit and the cost of living crisis may seem like a memorable trio of Westminster disasters to trot out in every General Election debate.

They were certainly used aplenty in response to every hostile question during the BBC Scottish leaders’ TV clash on Tuesday night.

And they were certainly useful, as three Unionist leaders weighed in on the Scottish Government’s perceived shortcomings – turning what should have been a discussion of Westminster issues into a dress rehearsal for the next Holyrood contest.

And fair’s fair – austerity, Brexit and the cost of living crisis may also be the real underlying biggies of this or any election campaign.

But not when repeated time and again like a mantra without flesh added to the bones or any vivid application of these abstract concepts to the actual points being made by Swinney’s rivals.

The same went for the predicted shortfall in Labour/Tory spending. Viewers were well aware after the first two/three/five mentions that the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has predicted £18 billion in cuts as a result of Labour’s spending plans. Swinney urged Anas Sarwar to “be open with voters and admit where the axe will fall”.

It was a powerful moment – once. Or twice.

But by the end of the hour, it sounded like another version of Rishi Sunak’s hotly contested £2k more tax per household if Labour win. Swinney’s statistic sounded more convincing – produced as it is by the IFS, not Tory spin doctors.

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But by the third or fourth repetition it began to sound just as whiney.

It also gave the false impression that Swinney had no other argument, no big SNP idea of his own to promote and no confidence in the general intelligence of his audience as the same factoid was repeated over and over and over again.

ABC and the £18bn cuts to public spending are powerful arguments.

But there are others and the audience craved a bit of cut and thrust and some immediate pick-up on vague or positively hollow Unionist assertions.

Angela Rayner’s trumpeting about GB Energy, for example, was met a few days ago by SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn whose truly memorable riposte created a different narrative, not an easily contested and forgotten set of facts and figures: “It’s not GB energy, it’s Scotland’s energy. Scotland needs more than a HQ. We want control.”

Spot on.

But on Tuesday, Swinney missed that opportunity and stuck to ABC instead.

The LibDems’ Alex Cole-Hamilton then had the audacity to suggest that his party would rebuild bridges with Europe – whit? His once pro-European party won’t even commit to rejoining the single market now. It would have been a point well worth scoring for the SNP – the only major pro-EU party left in the UK.

But it wasn’t – and followed eventually by another burst of ABC.

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And it was left to BBC presenter Stephen Jardine to ask Douglas Ross why anyone should vote for a man who doesn’t want to lead his own party. How powerful that question would have been if asked calmly by the man who didn’t expect to be leading his own party.

Nope, more ABC and a bit of £18bn.

Finally, a member of the audience asked Sarwar about Gaza, which allowed the Scottish Labour leader to say he backs a ceasefire, condemns IDF war crimes and wants peace and a two-state solution, prompting a burst of applause.

The important counterpoint for Scots is that Sarwar is overruled every time by his UK boss – especially in reserved areas like foreign policy.

Debate Night was indeed drawing to a close, but seeing Labour claim credit for a stance ENTIRELY developed by Humza Yousaf and Flynn was stomach-churning. It needed a swift, supplementary from Swinney – it didn’t happen.

I realise this may sound nippy, hyper-critical and a lot more negative than many mainstream commentators.

And Swinney made a real impression during his one-to-one with the BBC’s Nick Robinson last night when ABC worked better in a UK arena where mentioning Brexit is actually radical.

But over the next three weeks, we need the Holyrood First Minister on parade – the man who can be politely devastating in exchanges with his Unionist rivals in the Scottish Parliament. My point is just that another beefier, more varied approach is available, so let’s have it.

I’d love to see John Swinney give that ABC crutch the heave ho and be more reactive, thinking more nimbly on his feet from now on. After all, it’s not that hard to anticipate opposition arguments.

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Sarwar has promised to “remove this rotten Tory Government” so often I could do a (bad) impersonation. And Ross will talk till Doomsday about Scots being the most highly taxed citizens in the UK.

There’s an answer to each predictable assertion but they have to be actually made in the moment. Succinctly, memorably and without undue repetition.

Consider. One of the most powerful interventions in the election campaign so far consisted of just one word – no. Uttered by Flynn with a wry smile when asked if he’d support England in the Euros if Scotland aren’t playing.

That response spoke volumes and conveyed honesty rather than political calculation – vital if the SNP are to close the credibility gap in the entire political class revealed yesterday by the National Centre for Social Research.

It’s ironic. One a one-to-one basis, Swinney comes over as someone prepared to spend time with folk and happy to have a bit of craic. By all accounts he’s making a huge impact beyond the set-piece debates in canvassing efforts across Scotland. Some of that steady personality comes across in his reluctance to “go for the kill” on TV and in his party election broadcast with Kate Forbes.

Although it’s not clear if they’re speaking to the camera or one another, the effect is low-key, fireside and reassuring. It’s not quite Val Doonican with a Highland version of Dana, but it’s not far off.

And maybe that’s working – along with the aggravating impact of “national” fitba commentary which stubbornly ignores the fact that two teams have qualified for the Euros.

Either way, the latest Ipsos Mori poll out yesterday shows the SNP have recovered their earlier 10-point gap against Scottish Labour and are now neck and neck with 36% apiece and the Tories trailing so badly that they’re set to lose all seven Scottish seats, including Ross’s. Don’t put up the bunting yet, though, because Ipsos Mori says that still translates into a Scottish Labour “win” in terms of seats. But the pollsters also notes 42% of likely voters say they may change their mind by polling day.

So, the situation is far better than when the campaign began and there are three weeks to go. In short, the game is still on.

Of course, some Yessers feel terminally disappointed by the SNP. But if the party “loses” the Scottish part of this election, we’ll never hear the end of it. The Scottish people will have spoken. And it’ll be hard to stay upbeat about indy or the imminent 2026 Holyrood election campaign.

Sure, that’s not fair.

The SNP have “won” each General Election in Scotland for the past decade – breaking the bank completely in 2015 with 56 of the 59 Westminster seats. Yet David Cameron and the mainstream media paid not the slightest bit of attention. Still, with one falter – even a loss by one seat – the cause of independence will be declared dead and buried.

And even though Unionist tactical voting makes an SNP landslide almost impossible today and a protest vote against a mid-term Scottish Government is inevitable, no-one will make those allowances beyond the SNP themselves.

So, their success should concern every Yesser.

And that relies – at least partly – on punchy performances by all three SNP Musketeers: Swinney, Forbes and Flynn.