Nicola Sturgeon has been described as a rock star politician. In Tuesday’s STV debate she looked like one who is suffering from second album syndrome. Having impressed a UK-wide audience in the seven-leader ITV debate last week, her reception at the Scottish version was far more muted, with some instant polls suggesting a narrow victory for Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy. A dispassionate observer might place Sturgeon third, behind Murphy and an impressively plucky Ruth Davidson. It takes something to stand before a Scottish audience, where the Tory brand isn’t just toxic but radioactive, and earn applause for making the case to reintroduce prescription charges.
Ruth Davidson is unlikely to have swung many seats to the Conservatives, but the lacklustre performance of Nicola Sturgeon does make you wonder whether the widely-expected victory for the SNP in Scotland is quite the closed case believed by many. In his column tomorrow, James Forsyth reports that the SNP itself doesn’t believe it will win the 28 seats from Labour which some polls suggest – the party would be happy just to scrape a majority of 30 of Scotland’s 59 seats.
Sturgeon impressed in the English debate because nobody bothered to challenge her. Miliband and Cameron set about each other, allowing Sturgeon to get away with her spiel about an ‘end to austerity’ without demanding that she explain how she would pay for it. In the STV debate she was challenged, and came off worse on several occasions. The most revealing moment came when she was jeered for failing to rule out another independence referendum, many in the audience taking that as a sign of contempt for the 55 per cent of Scots who voted against in last September’s referendum.
David Cameron will have to watch it. A less good performance by the SNP than expected could well tip the election in favour of Ed Miliband. In the longer term, though, Tuesday showed hope for the Conservatives. There was little sign of contempt for them among the STV studio – something which would have been different a decade ago. More than that, in Ruth Davidson the Tories have a potential star. Only 36, she looks like a contender for the party’s national leader-after-next – one who can speak to lower-income voters without a hint of being patronising and who can unapologetically expound conservative ideas far away from the Tories’ home turf.