Tonight’s Scottish debate isn’t going to fundamentally alter the dynamics of this general election campaign in Scotland. But it will reverberate through the UK-wide general election campaign. Both Ed Miliband and David Cameron have been left with questions to answer by their Scottish leaders while Nicola Sturgeon has made clear the price she intends to try and extract for supporting a Labour government.
In heated exchanges with Sturgeon about the economy, Jim Murphy pointed out that the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that Labour would not need to cut further after 2016. Now, the Labour leadership in London has studiously avoided endorsing this idea. But Miliband and Ed Balls can now expect to be put on the spot about it after Murphy’s comments.
But it is not just the UK Labour leadership who have been left with a tricky question to answer by this debate. Following a question from the audience, Ruth Davidson emphatically ruled out a Tory coalition with Ukip. She went far further than Cameron ever has in saying that there will be no such deal. Now, when Grant Shapps said this earlier in the campaign, Cameron and Osborne failed to endorse his comments—instead sticking to the line about the Tories aiming for an outright majority. But with his Scottish leader now having said this, Cameron will be asked the question again—and with more force.
I suspect, though, that the moment the Tories will want to talk about from this debate is the one where Nicola Sturgeon said that she’d put Ed Miliband in power but SNP MPs would ensure that spending was increased, not cut. The Tories will try and use these comments to say that a Prime Minister Miliband would be beholden to the SNP and its high spending agenda.
Perhaps, though, the most dramatic moment of the debate was when Nicola Sturgeon refused to rule out putting a commitment to hold an independence referendum in the SNP’s manifesto for the 2016 Holyrood election. When she said this, the audience audibly recoiled and Sturgeon looked taken aback by the reaction. For a brief moment, she appeared positively rattled. But given how much of the SNP’s support is coming from those who voted Yes last year, I doubt it will do her party that much damage in the polls.
In many ways there were two debates going on tonight, Labour v the SNP and the Tories v the Lib Dems. In that second contest, Davidson won by a mile. She was passionate and unafraid of the coalition’s record and her own arguments. This was in stark contrast to Willie Rennie, the Scottish Lib Dem leader, who turned in a listless performance.