After almost five years as Scotland's undisputed champion, Alex Salmond faces what are perhaps, thus far, his most difficult times as First Minister. Even so, it seems inconceivable that these will threaten his position at the head of the Scottish Government or his own Scottish National Party. They have been leapt on, though, by his opponents to try and penetrate his hitherto impregnable defences. Since 2007, he has commanded the centre of the Holyrood ring, swatting off the attacks of other parliamentarians with equal measures of brilliance, badinage, bluster and mastery of his brief.
At today's First Minister's Sparring session, however, Mr Salmond seemed slightly less assured than normal. He still probably emerged as a 'points winner' over the challengers - L.D. LabTory - but there were none of the knockdowns we've become accustomed to seeing whenever he enters the arena. Unsurprisingly, given his past record, it's taken a combination of two of the world's most feared marketplace maulers to force the nationalist champion on to the ropes, albeit temporarily one assumes.
It's probably an exaggeration to call it a perfect storm but the 'Tycoon Typhoon' has rained a little on what many suspected might be Salmond's triumphant, two-year, ticker-tape parade to Independence. Indeed, in recognition of this moment, any future difficulties in the SNP camp might be greeted by the plaintive cry, "Alec, there's been a Murdump."
So cutting through all the accusation and innuendo what, if anything, has the First Minister been guilty of?
Let's dispose with Donald 'The Evidence' Trump first. There probably never was an issue for the First Minister to concern himself with in 'Windgate' anyway but that is almost now immaterial as 'The Donald' single-handedly destroyed his own credibility as a potentially hostile witness.
Most opposition figures assumed, no doubt, they'd never encounter anyone within the Parliament building so convinced of their own infallibility as the FM. Mr Trump, however, takes self-satisfied and self-assured to a whole new level. Apparently he considers himself a world authority in a number of areas. That might explain why - when he has the finances to seek the assistance of the world's best - he also seems to be self-coiffured.
Trump seemed to think the Committee Room was actually his boardroom during shooting of The Apprentice. He would deliver his verdicts (my golf course is great; windpower is shite; McConnell lied; Salmond lied; I've been duped; no-one will invest in Scotland. Again. Ever.) and walk out without being challenged. Indeed, when his dubious timeline of events was challenged by Patrick Harvie, one of the businessman's advisers leapt to his defence, 'This is not the Trump Inquiry', he bleated.
When he then desperately conflated 'Windgate' and the decision to release Al-Megrahi (claiming they were the 'same kind of thinking') one wondered if he was losing his faculties. When he claimed that Al-Megrahi was seen jogging in a park last week, one stopped wondering. It also revealed Trump's tenuous relationship with the truth and rendered the rest of his submission almost worthless. Admitting he had no proof for any of his claims, no written undertakings, that he had embarked on a billion pound project with no demonstrable assurances he proclaimed 'I am the evidence.' In that case, Mr Trump, the verdict must be 'Not Guilty'.
The Murdoch/BSkyB imbroglio is potentially more damaging for the First Minister. Even here, though, there is little clear evidence of any wrongdoing. Admittedly, much of the issue is down to individual interpretation of some third party email correspondence and how one imagines that stacks up with the statements of the various parties and the personal judgements one has of the people involved. Invariably what this will mean is that political opponents will try to believe the worst of Salmond and supporters will accept his explanations. The verdicts of the uncommitted will likely not to be known until Autumn 2014. By that time more pressing issues are likely to have assumed centre stage.
It does seem clear to me, even as an SNP and a Salmond supporter (not always the same thing), that some vague undertaking was made to give support - or, at least, not be unsupportive of - NewsCorp's attempted takeover of BSkyB. I have little doubt that it occurred to the First Minister (widely recognised as the sharpest operator in UK politics) that this would not damage the chances of securing some Murdoch-media support for the Scottish National Party - whether that was explicitly voiced or not. I have few qualms about that. Regardless of what they are currently saying publicly, even in the wake of the phone-hacking allegations, all other political parties would gleefully accept the implied support of The Sun in advance of an election. Anyone claiming otherwise is lying.
Even assuming the worst - that the mutual back-scratching was explicitly voiced and agreed - my criticism of Salmond would be muted. This was, let us not forget, regardless of how Opposition leaders try to confuse the issue, before the Millie Dowler incident had become publicly known. Though some will claim it is still 'supping with the Devil', it is still a Devil that all parties were keen to sup with. The real outrage in all of this - particularly from Labour - is that Murdoch chose the nationalists over them.
There are still, though, unexplained elements. Portrayed, as it has been, by Salmond detractors as a sordid 'quid pro quo' arrangement, it remains difficult to see what NewsCorp believed they might get out of the deal. Exactly what influence did they believe Alex Salmond might have with the ConDem Coalition?
Were Jeremy Hunt, Vince Cable and David Cameron going to usher through a deal on the say-so of the SNP leader? Were the regulators at the Competition Commission and OFCOM beholden to Alex Salmond? The answers to both of those questions must be an unequivocal 'No'.
If we were talking about the starstruck directors of a Scottish SME, I might concede that Salmond could convince them that he had enough 'pull' in Westminster to help their cause. This, however, as everyone knows is one of the most sophisticated, politically-savvy corporations not only in British terms but worldwide. NewsCorp had to know that the First Minister would be relatively useless to them in their bid to take control of BSkyB. That strongly suggests to me that there was no 'quid pro quo' arrangement of the type alleged by the Holyrood opposition parties.
Where then is the benefit to NewsCorp? What's the skinny? Here's my assessment.
Gallons of ink have been expended on how influential mass-market newspapers are in determining elections. Although there are still some who believe 'It's The Sun What Won It', the majority are now inclined to believe that they are followers rather than leaders - skilled at picking up on prevailing moods and siding with, rather than selecting, election victors. This view is supported by studies showing voting patterns of those who read and those who don't read newspapers.
Is it not simply the case that NewsCorp, News International, and The Sun have seen how the political cookie is crumbling in Scotland? They have chosen the party they believe will win. Not only in the upcoming local elections but in the Referendum of Autumn 2014. They wish to be associated with winners. This is what the anti-Independence parties find hard to stomach.
And if, in News International's mind, that places them advantageously in the marketplace post-Independence, then they have their 'quid pro quo'.