Sorry’s the hardest word for unapologetic politicians

Our special correspondent analyses last night's general election debate on STV.

Debate: The leaders were in no mood to back down.
Debate: The leaders were in no mood to back down.

If I had a pound for every time the leaders of four of Scotland’s parties asked an opponent if they were ashamed or embarrassed about a policy or stance, I would be retired by now.

Nicola Sturgeon, Jackson Carlaw, Richard Leonard and Willie Rennie clashed, often angrily, on the STV Leaders’ debate last night.

The opening statements told me this would be an exercise in repeating central campaign themes and consolidating key messages.

The SNP leader demanded that Westminster respects the right of voters here to make a decision on their own future.

Willie Rennie and Jackson Carlaw were only too happy to oblige with a continuation of the constitutional theme. The former said he was about stopping Brexit and independence, the latter told viewers that the Union was on the ballot paper next week and people should consider ‘lending’ the Scottish Conservatives their vote.

Richard Leonard steered clear of the constitution with a simple message; only Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn could be Prime Minister and only Mr Corbyn could deliver an effective end to austerity.

The heart of the programme was each leader cross-examining one another in turn. Time and again, a leader would ignore the uncomfortable import of a question and try to change the subject. Time and again, they talked over one another. Time and again, apologies were demanded which were never forthcoming.

I thought at one point Willie Rennie thought he was in a face-pulling competition such were his facial contortions.

Nicola Sturgeon and Jackson Carlaw are natural debaters and looked more comfortable with the format. The Scottish Conservative leader looked at his most uncomfortable when Sturgeon questioned him about rising child poverty.

Willie Rennie anticipated (correctly) that his opponents would try to hang coalition austerity around his neck. His form of defence was to ignore the question and turn his fire on the record of the last Labour government.

Richard Leonard’s weakest section was when he was derided about the “fudge and fence sitting” of Jeremy Corbyn on Brexit. As he insisted that Labour’s strategy was clear, the First Minister interjected “you can’t keep a straight face”. He had a look of exasperation as he was pursued by Jackson Carlaw on the issue of former Labour supporters urging a vote for the Conservatives.

The First Minister remained calm as her opponents attacked her record on health and education amid a charge from Mr Carlaw that these were not priorities for her because she was only concerned about independence.

Did we learn anything new as a result of the crossfire? Not really. This was a case of relaying key messages to a peak time television audience.

I always think that talk of winners and losers in these debates to be a pointless exercise. You, the voting public will decide the winners when you go to the polls in just over a week’s time.


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