The leaders of Scotland’s five mainstream political parties squared up to each other in the second television election debate on Tuesday night.
This time Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Douglas Ross (Conservatives), Anas Sarwar (Labour), Willie Rennie (LibDems) and Patrick Harvie (Scottish Greens co-leader) were debating on Scottish Television.
It follows a BBC party leaders debate two weeks ago and a large number of opinion polls – including today’s Panelbase poll for Believe in Scotland – showing a majority for Yes in a future independence referendum.
In the STV debate format each leader was cross-examined by their rivals. It was chaired by STV political editor Colin Mackay. Here are five things we learned from the debate:
1: Only one leader was campaigning to be First Minister
Nicola Sturgeon has been First Minister since 2014 and every opinion poll focusing on the Scottish elections in May has her keeping the job, most often as the leader of a majority SNP administration but a few polls suggest she may have to once again remain in power with support from the Greens.
None of the other leaders has a realistic chance of deposing her and they know it.
That leaves Douglas Ross and Anas Sarwar battling for second place. So far the Labour Party has ruled out any electoral deal with the Tories which would present a combined pro-Union front.
Labour’s Anas Sarwar says his main aim is to provide ‘’better opposition’’ than the Tories
Although last night’s debate saw no repeat of the previous debate’s angry clash between Mr Ross and Mr Sarwar it’s still clear the two men do not have a warm relationship.
The Labour leader takes every opportunity to distance himself from the Conservatives. He says his main aim is to provide ‘’better opposition’’ than the Tories.
Willie Rennie and Patrick Harvie are simply out to increase their total of MSPs (5 and 6 respectively). Harvie has a chance of actually getting some Green policies enacted if the SNP fails to win an outright majority.
2: Labour’s opposition to indyref 2 doesn’t make sense
Anas Sarwar doesn’t respect Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson and would certainly describe himself as a democrat.
Yet he refuses to follow logic and say he would support a second independence referendum if the May election returns a majority of pro-independence MSPs.
Nicola Sturgeon challenged him during the debate to abandon his opposition to a second independence referendum and uphold the principles of democracy.
She said she respected his opposition to independence itself – although she disagreed with him – but refusing to recognise the desire of the Scottish people to have a vote on the country’s constitutional future simply made no sense. Mr Sarwar had no answer.
3: Willie Rennie believes he has magical powers
The LibDem leader suggested during the debate that he could persuade Boris Johnson that Brexit had been a terrible idea and Britain should immediately open negotiations to rejoin the EU.
Mr Rennie was a passionate Remainer and insists that Britain’s best future would be as an EU member.
He brushed aside Nicola Sturgeon when she pointed out his own party’s UK leader Ed Davey had said it was no longer interested in rejoining the European Union.
Mr Rennie insisted that rejoining remained his aim but rejected the SNP leader’s assertion that independence offered the only way to do that. Instead, he says, he would persuade Boris Johnson to see the error of his ways. Cue laughter.
Since Douglas Ross’ howler of a debut in the first TV debate social media has been awash with suggestions the party would find some excuse to replace him in the second with Ruth Davidson
4: Douglas Ross was better than last time … but still terrible
The biggest surprise of the night was that the Conservative’s Scottish leader actually look part in the debate.
Since his howler of a debut in the first TV debate social media has been awash with suggestions the party would find some excuse to replace him in the second with Ruth Davidson.
Mr Ross had more control over his temper this time round so none of the other leaders had to tell him again to grow up.
Nevertheless he was left floundering by Nicola Sturgeon’s attack on the UK Tory government’s decision to take legal action against Holyrood’s move to enshrine the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in law.
Why, asked Colin Mackay, can’t you concentrate on Covid recovery and a referendum at the same time? The Tory leader wasted no brain cells in firing back: ”You just can’t, Colin”
Ms Sturgeon urged Mr Ross to explain how the Scottish Tories could vote for the move in the Scottish parliament and then support Boris Johnson’s move to block it. He bowed to the inevitable and refused to properly answer.
But let’s be fair, he did come up with the most ridiculous answer to a question all night … possibly all year. Why, asked Colin Mackay, can’t you concentrate on Covid recovery and a referendum at the same time? The Tory leader wasted no brain cells in firing back: ”You just can’t, Colin”. An instant meme and hashtag.
5: Sometimes it’s best to admit your mistakes
It takes a brave politician to admit to serious failings but Nicola Sturgeon last night owned up to her government taking its eye off the ball on Scotland’s appalling number of drug deaths.
When that number set a new record in 2019 the First Minister acted to replace public health minister Joe FitzPatrick. She said in the debate last night: “I take the view that when politicians get things wrong – and we all get things wrong – it’s really important to face up to that.’’
That response did not seek to minimise the importance of taking tough action to cut the number of drug deaths or downplay the grief of those who had suffered the loss of loved ones.
But it did show a politician willing to be honest about the mistakes her government had made.
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