Nicola Sturgeon had a bad debate but will it change anything?

Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t walk on water after all.

The SNP leader famed for her formidable debating skills struggled to take the fight to Jim Murphy in the Scotland Debates programme.

I assumed Ms Sturgeon had won before she even took to her podium. There was no way Mr Murphy could outmanoeuvre the most popular politician in the land. He would be drowned in a torrent of “Red Tories” and “talking down Scotland”.

“She could garrotte a puppy live on that stage tonight and she’d still walk it,” I remarked to a colleague beforehand.

Lesson learned: Don’t underestimate Jim Murphy.

Backed into a corner and faced with abysmal polls, the Scottish Labour leader came out swinging and landed some minor blows on the First Minister.

Twice he asked if she wanted to see Ed Miliband as Prime Minister. Twice she pivoted to what the SNP would do after May 7. He brought up the SNP’s broken pledge to forgive student debt. “You did a Nick Clegg on us,” he jabbed with vicious precision.

(Stop a minute and take that in: Jim Murphy got the better of Nicola Sturgeon on higher education funding.)

The First Minister has found herself under pressure more than once from Scottish Labour’s second-in-command Kezia Dugdale at FMQs. The problem is there’s only a dozen people watching and they all work in politics or media.

Mr Murphy’s success was compounded by the fact it took place in front of 800,000 Scots, many of whom will have been getting their first taste of the Labour boss.

They won’t have seen the shameless triangulator, who was once a Blairite ultra and now sounds like Eric Heffer just back from a Campaign Group meeting. They will have seen passionate progressive Jim, with his fiery (and undoubtedly sincere) denunciation of the “disgusting” need for food banks and an improbable turn as a class warrior on the Mansion Tax: “I don’t give a damn what Boris Johnson thinks.”

The biggest boost for Labour came when its leader wasn’t even on stage. Ms Sturgeon stumbled when grilled by an audience member about her plans for a second referendum. She had, after all, said before September 18 that the vote was a “once in a lifetime” event. “Politicians don’t dictate these things,” she told moderator Bernard Ponsonby in response. “It’s up to the people.” Which is a noble principle but the subtext – that you can’t take Nicola Sturgeon at her word – is unfortunate.

The real difficulty came on the matter of timing. She clearly and firmly ruled out another plebiscite on the strength of May’s poll. What, Mr Ponsonby pressed, about the 2016 Holyrood election? “That’s another matter,” she attempted to bat the issue away. “We’ll write that manifesto when we get there.”

Then something weird happened. Not Moustache Man weird but unusual nonetheless. The audience jeered her.

This wasn’t the first time she had admitted to wanting a second referendum in this generation rather than the next. But it was probably the first time the audience had heard it and likely the first time they had heard Nicola Sturgeon sounding like what she is: a politician.

Labour was gleeful at the hint that the 2016 SNP manifesto could commit the party to another vote on what they delight in calling “separation”. And no wonder. The Nationalist leader can win this election handily with the support of The 45 – who have gone very quiet on the subject of a Yes vote not equating to an endorsement of the SNP – but she wants to win across Scotland and central to that is playing down the polarising issue of independence.

Recall her speech to the party’s conference not even a fortnight ago: “My message today reaches far beyond the ranks of our party. It goes to every home, community and workplace across our land. To Yes voters and to No voters. To those who have always voted SNP in Westminster elections and to those who have never done so before. On May 7, let us put the normal divisions of politics to one side. Let us come together on that day as one country.”

Now independence is back on the agenda, the normal divisions return to the fore. This is unlikely to help Labour much in May but it hands the party a sharp attack line for the next Holyrood poll.

The SNP leader didn’t have a disastrous night but it was a decidedly sub-Sturgeon performance. Given her standing in the polls, she could afford another ten debates like Tuesday night’s – she might even get away with the aforementioned doggy-throttling, were she so inclined – and she would still coast this election. She is, however, no longer unassailable and that matters.

Despite his confident turn, Mr Murphy isn’t jejune enough to think one debate can turn things around. But he left Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms with a spring in his crimson-brogued step. Labour is off life support, if not politically certainly in psychological terms. I’d wager that a fair few activists who have stayed away from the campaign so far will turn up for canvassing on Saturday morning.

In truth, for his performance to be a game-changer, Mr Murphy needed it to take place five months ago. However, if he can keep up the momentum and hammer away at the SNP on its record on education and the NHS at Holyrood, Labour could pick up the extra four or five percent it needs to turn obliteration into a less catastrophic defeat. It’s hardly a victory but victory is impossible now.

If Jim Murphy was the winner of the debate, it was by a nose. Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson was at his heels – and at one point, his throat – with one of the strongest performances she has yet given. (This, bear in mind, is a politician who was the highlight of any number of TV debates during the referendum.)

The Conservative chief staked out a clear centre-right position and was refreshingly honest on the need for more spending restraint to reduce the deficit. In a country whose politics is governed by giddy disregard for economic realities, this was a brave move and it more than paid off. Here was a Tory who elicited applause from a Scottish audience for her call to reintroduce prescription charges for the middle classes. Could you imagine David Cameron tethering himself to such an unpopular policy simply because he thought it was the right thing to do?

There is no real test for Ms Davidson on May 7; that comes in 2016. If her party picks up a second seat at Westminster, the grassroots will be very happy; a third and they’ll be ecstatic. (To a thirsty man, tap water tastes like champagne.)

But she is – slowly and almost singlehandedly – replenishing the reserves of confidence and maybe even optimism amongst Scotland’s true blue faithful. Whether she picked up a single vote last night is debatable but she will have confirmed to Tory Scotland that if they are to be revived as a political force, she is the leader to do it.

Debate scorecard?

Winner: Murphy.

Close second: Davidson.

Underachiever: Sturgeon.

And Willie Rennie? Well, he turned up and that’s the main thing.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © First Minister of Scotland by Creative Commons 2.0.

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