Nicola Sturgeon squirming in first TV debate of election campaign

Nicola Sturgeon is left squirming in first TV debate of Scottish election campaign as she comes under fire for plan to put a divisive independence referendum before coronavirus recovery

  • SNP leader appeared flustered during the first TV leaders’ debate of campaign
  • Confirmed plans to hold independence referendum within two-and-a-half years 
  • A rattled Miss Sturgeon even appeared to squirm when she was put on the spot 

Nicola Sturgeon came under fire last night over her plan to put a divisive independence referendum before the coronavirus recovery.

The SNP leader appeared flustered during the first televised leaders’ debate of the Scottish election campaign.

The First Minister faced an onslaught of dissenting voices as she confirmed that she plans to hold a fresh ballot on her bid to break up the UK within two-and-a-half years.

A rattled Miss Sturgeon even appeared to squirm when she was put on the spot over her plans for another vote, reluctantly committing to holding one in the first half of the next parliament, if elected.

The SNP leader appeared flustered during the first televised leaders’ debate of the Scottish election campaign

Opposition leaders reacted angrily and accused the First Minister of ignoring the public’s desire to make fixing the economy and mending public services top priority.

Opponents warned Scotland faces the threat of five years of ‘poisonous’ arguments between Miss Sturgeon and Alex Salmond if the SNP wins the election.

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross attacked her for putting issues including education and economic recovery ‘to the side’ in favour of independence. 

He said: ‘The final piece of legislation that the SNP laid in front of parliament before the parliament rose for this election was one about independence, because it is their only priority, it is their political priority.

‘We have heard from the studio so far today it’s not the public’s priority and that is why Nicola Sturgeon is wrong and that’s why we can’t have a recovery when the SNP and the Scottish Government are only focused on another referendum.’

Answering questions from members of the public invited to take part virtually in the BBC debate in Edinburgh, Miss Sturgeon found herself on the rack over the constitution.

Sturgeon: Referendum in two-and-a-half years 

Nicola Sturgeon sparked fury last night after confirming she will push to hold a second independence referendum within the next two-and-a-half years.

The First Minister was challenged by voters on whether her focus was on the pandemic or on breaking up the United Kingdom.

While she said this was something the public should ‘judge’ for themselves, the SNP leader confirmed she will seek a divisive referendum in the first half of the next five-year Holyrood term – ‘assuming the crisis has passed’.

The First Minister added: ‘I’ll leave other people to judge if my focus has been on the pandemic or not over the past year.’ Scottish Greens co-leader Lorna Slater said her party would commit to a referendum in the next Holyrood term in its manifesto.

But Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross launched a furious attack on Miss Sturgeon. He said: ‘Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed she would want a referendum in the next two years, when we are still dealing with this health pandemic. When we’re still trying to recover our economy, Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed to everyone tonight that the SNP will take us forward into another independence referendum if they get that majority.’

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said he wanted to ‘focus on what unites us as a country, not what divides us’.

One audience member, introduced as Selwyn, told her: ‘Nicola Sturgeon said to us she is focused on Covid and all that goes with it. If that’s the case how did she find time to put an independence bill through parliament while we are still suffering Covid? That’s not a focus.’

Another member of the virtual audience at the debate, introduced as Angelica, said: ‘Back in November 2020, Nicola Sturgeon was pushing for another independence referendum.

‘So is the focus really on the Covid recovery or is your focus on a referendum?

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: ‘We will not get through this pandemic, and we will not get a recovery that benefits everyone if we are arguing amongst ourselves all the time.

‘We need to put the division, the exhausting arguments of the past, behind us and focus on the recovery.’ He added: ‘We know it will be a long, divisive argument. We’ve seen the arguments over the last few weeks with Alex Salmond over these issues.

‘It is going to be bitter, it is going to be divided, it will last for years. It will be just like Brexit.

‘I’ve seen a window into the next five years in the last few weeks – arguments over the constitution, strategy about independence; arguments between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond which have been poisonous and unpleasant. And what we need to do is to put all of that behind us and choose a different future.’

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar was joined by members of other parties in quizzing Miss Sturgeon over her priorities.

He said: ‘Credit where credit is due, the First Minister has been out every day talking about Covid and trying to lead from the front, but I just fear she has a blind spot when it comes to the constitution and when it comes to the referendum.’

Responding to the question about pushing the referendum Bill through the Scottish parliament during the pandemic, Miss Sturgeon said: ‘First of all, we haven’t put an independence referendum Bill through the parliament. We published a draft, as I said we would. I think it’s nine pages long.

‘I will leave other people to judge whether my focus has been on the coronavirus pandemic or not over the past year.

‘People have seen me literally every single day lead the country’s fight against Covid and I have spent literally almost every waking moment doing that, rightly and properly as First Minister.’

The leaders of the five main parties took part in the socially distanced debate, with a virtual audience asking them questions from home.

Other issues included strategy for the coronavirus recovery, education and health. Mr Ross also highlighted a pledge this week by Miss Sturgeon in an election campaign speech that all pupils in Scotland would receive a tablet device or laptop.

He said: ‘Does it really help young people who have been out of school for the last year to offer them a free device at the start of an election campaign rather than the start of a pandemic?’

Mr Sarwar raised concerns about the NHS north of the Border, and referred to a grandmother who has been told that she must travel to London for an operation to treat an aggressive form of cancer because of a ‘backlog’ in Scotland’s health service.

Mary Hudson, 69, was informed that she could not be treated here owing to health service capacity issues caused by a coronavirus backlog, and will instead be forced to endure an eight-hour journey from her home in Glasgow to the NHS Hammersmith Hospital in London.

The Scottish Labour leader said: ‘She [Mrs Hudson] had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and been told by the NHS in Scotland that due to the backlog of Covid, they are not treating recurring cancers, and would only be treating first time cancers.

‘She has been forced to travel south in order to get that operation.’  

STEPHEN DAISLEY SKETCH: Sturgeon observed social distancing by staying at home  

Encircling half a dozen podiums apparently located inside a black hole, the five party chiefs growled at one another for over an hour on the BBC leaders’ debate. Imagine the Galactic Senate, only with five Darth Vaders.

Sarah Smith, clad in Nat-baiting red, chaired the proceedings ably, whooshing questions from a remote audience to the politicians and back again.

Adding to the mildly sinister atmosphere, the voters were kept in a mosaic of screens in the middle of the vortex and muted and unmuted on Smith’s command.

It was the first virtual velitation of the election, yet the BBC couldn’t seem to bring the fireworks. Truth be told, the whole affair was a wee bit dull. Nicola Sturgeon diligently observed social distancing by staying at home and leaving the debate to everyone else.

Maybe it was the awkward format, maybe she just had a bad night, but she seemed distracted and frustrated.

Sturgeon wins debates because she commands the room. Last night, she barely looked in command of her own answers. Even before the opposition leaders got a chance, the audience was ganging up on her, zooming in from all across the country to ask why she was banging on about a second referendum in the middle of a pandemic.

One voter, Selwyn, rebuked her for ‘putting a referendum bill through parliament’.

She shot back that she hadn’t technically put it through yet, just published a draft – and it was only nine pages long. This was supposed to instil confidence.

The First Minister got some backing from Colin, who seemed promising at first with his criticism of the pro-Union leaders but swiftly switched to: ‘You’re nothing more than imperialists… you take your orders from London.’

To the audience suggestion that there were more pressing concerns than the constitution, Sturgeon cited the 2007 global financial crisis and recalled how she’d been told back then that separation had to be shelved.

It’s hardly revelatory that Sturgeon supports independence, but it was quite the admission that she thinks Scotland leaving the UK would have been wise while Bear Stearns executives were remortgaging their private helicopters.

H ER pitch to punters was that the Covid recovery would be best served by an independent Scotland within ‘the European single market’, a curious turn of phrase from someone who has spent five years railing against Scotland being ‘dragged out’ of any aspect of the European Union.

I suspect some internal polling has identified her inflexible rhetoric around Brexit as a recruiting sergeant for another nationalist party. One just recently launched. One with a Gaelic name none of its non-Gael members can pronounce.

Joining the familiar faces was relative newcomer Lorna Slater, a Canadian-born engineer who co-leads what she kept calling ‘the Scorrish Greens’.

Her delightfully transatlantic accent took off from Calgary and circled somewhere above Canonmills for most of the debate, as she argued that people should vote Green for new jobs, more homes and better trains.

Her pronunciation was very different from that of Patrick Harvie. Every time he talks about the environment, it comes out as ‘independence’.

Most of Labour leader Anas Sarwar’s opening statement was carried in wide shot, then the screen cut to black, before returning to him for the final few seconds.

Later the camera zoomed out inexplicably in the middle of an answer. It was a remote debate and it looked as though the director was working from home, too. 

So who was strongest on the issues that REALLY matter?  

ON CORONAVIRUS STRATEGY

BEST LINES:

Douglas Ross: ‘Does it really help young people who have been out of school for the last year to offer them a free device at the start of an election campaign rather than the start of a pandemic?’

Nicola Sturgeon: ‘These are serious times, and they demand serious leadership. We need an experienced hand at the wheel.’

ANALYSIS:

Nicola Sturgeon felt confident speaking about her approach to coronavirus. She feels it is her strongest card and believed the country would be convinced that her experience is still needed.

But Douglas Ross managed to land two strong blows. He highlighted how two of her ministers have broken rules on outdoor gatherings while campaigning and also exposed how the SNP made a flagship promise in a conference speech to give a laptop to every child – but has failed to act during the pandemic when they have been needed most.

VERDICT:

Nicola Sturgeon’s line about her coronavirus leadership was her strongest showing, but Douglas Ross edged it by exposing election bribes that could have been introduced long before now.

ON ECONOMIC RECOVERY

BEST LINES:

Willie Rennie: ‘We need to put our differences behind us and bring our country together.’

Anas Sarwar: ‘It will take years to recover in the aftermath of Covid and Covid has hit people equally whether Yes, No, Leave or Remain.’

Douglas Ross: ‘We can’t have a recovery and a referendum.’

ANALYSIS:

All leaders agreed the economy needs to be the focus. Miss Sturgeon was less convincing when opponents highlighted that she will put independence first, meaning years of divisive debate.

VERDICT:

Some impressive points from Anas Sarwar about the need to focus on economic action rather than more division.

ON INDEPENDENCE:

BEST LINES:

Willie Rennie: ‘I’ve seen a window into the next five years in the last few weeks: arguments over the constitution, strategy about independence, arguments between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond which have been poisonous and unpleasant.’

Douglas Ross: ‘We have heard from the studio so far today it’s not the public’s priority and that is why Nicola Sturgeon is wrong and that’s why we can’t have a recovery when the SNP and the Scottish Government are only focused on another referendum.’

ANALYSIS:

An issue that dominated for the audience and the leaders. Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that she wants an independence referendum within two-and-a-half years, while Lorna Slater of the Greens only wanted it within the five-year term of parliament.

VERDICT:

Willie Rennie made good points about the need to escape more division and five years of poisonous arguments between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.

ON HEALTH:

BEST LINES:

Anas Sarwar: ‘Even despite Covid, cancer remains Scotland’s biggest killer. We can’t have people needing to go south for treatment.’

ANALYSIS:

The issue was dominated by Anas Sarwar, who set out policy ideas about tackling the NHS backlog and highlighted the impact lockdown has had. Nicola Sturgeon also got in some good policy ideas about temporary operation facilities and mobile units.

VERDICT:

A clear win for Anas Sarwar. 

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