Election Comment: Terry Murden
Sturgeon on the ropes as hard truths emerge
It was all going so well. Nicola Sturgeon, feted by the English no less after her stirring performances in the first of the televised leaders’ debates, was on a roll. Dave, Ed and Nick struggled to get a clean punch on the new Irn-Lady who was bathed in praise by her new southern fans and returned north to a hero’s welcome.
How she must be regretting this week’s sub-standard bouts on home turf, finding herself unable to run rings around politicians more familiar with her weaker points. And boy, did they slug her a few times.
There was no knowing whether the debates on STV, ITV and the BBC would be anything other than inconclusive rabble-rousing contests. Instead they teased out some hard truths, and none more so than the First Minister’s position on a possible second referendum, her preference for installing Ed Miliband in Downing Street, and her vulnerability over tax raising and spending.
So why did she crash and burn in Edinburgh and Aberdeen after shining so brightly in England? The main difference, of course, is that in England she represents part of the Opposition and, as such was the aggressor to Dave and Nick’s coalition, and a contender to Ed’s ambitions.
In Scotland, the roles are reversed. She heads the government and has a track record to defend. Her fellow ‘leaders’ (David Coburn was a token representative for UKIP) queued up to deliver punishing blows on the SNP’s performance on health targets, college places, police reform, and most of all, on its plans for a new vote on independence and full fiscal autonomy (FFA).
Ms Sturgeon is a feisty battler, as proven by her performances at FMQs, but this week she looked more like the Easter rabbit caught in the headlights. She stumbled over Bernard Ponsonby’s deft question about whether their will be a bid for a second referendum after the 2016 Scottish Election, stating that it was “another matter”. She fell into Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy’s trap on the same subject, handing him a direct hit and the opportunity to coin Kenny Dalglish’s famous “mebbees aye, mebbees no” quip to describe her apparent shift from a firm Yes.
The FM made a reasonable stab at protecting herself by stating that a second referendum would only come about if circumstances change, such as Britain leaving the EU. But what if they don’t? No one asked the follow-up question.
Her second slip came over FFA and her inability to answer questions about the £7.6 billion shortfall it would create in the Scottish government’s budget. She was on the ropes with a bloody nose. She must have been desperate for the bell to ring for the beating to end.
It revealed a party leader with a vision, but a dodgy grasp of maths. An ideal about fairness and equality without a clearly thought out strategy as to how it should be achieved, in particular how to fund it.
She slipped in a comment about oil no longer providing the basic support for the economy (a bit of shift there), and brought up the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund, a meaningless reference point on at least two counts: it is a pension fund, not a cash cow for current spending, and it is too late for Scotland or the UK to start one now.
The debates were better than some would have us believe. This is politics, after all, and we expect some squabbling. They will certainly provide some meat for the next round of opinion polls.
Voters were barely moved by what they heard in England which was regarded as an even and inconclusive contest. The Scottish debates have produced some clearer positioning for the voters to chew over.