Scottish party leaders clash in tough first election debate

The cost of living crisis, oil and gas licences, EU membership and the NHS were among the issues raised.

The leaders of Scotland’s four main political parties have clashed with each other in the first televised debate of the General Election.

Moderated by STV political editor Colin Mackay, the leaders of the SNP, Scottish Labour, Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Liberal Democrats took part in the event at STV’s headquarters in Glasgow.

The cost of living crisis, oil and gas licences, EU membership and the NHS were among the issues raised during the debate.

After being questioned by Mackay, the party leaders then had the chance to cross-examine each other.

The debate took place just hours after a poll suggested Labour is on course for the biggest election victory in the party’s history, surpassing Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide.

The party looks set to win as many as 422 seats, with the Tories reduced to just 140, according to YouGov analysis published on Monday.

The poll, using the MRP (multi-level regression and post-stratification) technique and carried out for Sky News, suggests Sir Keir Starmer’s party is on course for a majority of 194 – the largest margin for any party since 1924.

And both Swinney and Sarwar found a rare point of consensus during the debate – namely removing the Tories from power at Westminster.

“This election is about getting rid of this Tory Government and it can only be replaced by a Labour government with Scottish Labour MPs at its heart delivering for the Scottish people,” Sarwar said to the First Minister.

“So surely you agree getting rid of this Tory Government is an opportunity Scotland can’t afford to miss?”

“I absolutely agree that we should get rid of this Tory Government,” Swinney responded.

But he added that the SNP was the nearest rival in every Tory seat in Scotland.

Sarwar said that, while the SNP can beat Scottish Tory MPs, “Labour can get rid of an entire Tory Government”.

The Labour MSP also took a swipe at the SNP, which he said was “mired in sleaze”.

Earlier, Sarwar earlier told Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross he should be “begging for forgiveness” after 14 years in power rather than “pleading for votes”.

Ross said he was not “downplaying the difficult circumstances that are facing people in Scotland, across the UK and indeed in many other parts of the world”.

The parliamentary candidate for Moray admitted he was wrong in his attempts to get the Scottish Government to cut taxes along with the UK administration of Liz Truss.

Truss’s so-called mini budget – which she laid out in the early weeks of her ill-fated tenure in Downing Street – sent the pound plummeting.

On Monday, Ross said: “I looked at that budget and assumed like every budget (John Swinney) delivered in the Scottish Parliament and every budget I’ve sat through at Westminster, that they had gone through the normal processes with the Treasury, with the civil servants, to make sure that they were enforceable that the work had been done behind the scenes to make sure what had been announced was deliverable.

“That hadn’t been done.

“And I hold my hands up, I assumed that had been done.”

Another of the main topics that featured in the debate was the future of the oil and gas industry.

Facing questions from the other leaders, Swinney was unable to say if he would support the granting of new exploration licences in the North Sea.

The Scottish Government’s current position – according to its draft energy strategy – is a presumption against new drilling, but the First Minister has been reluctant to confirm the policy will remain in the finalised document.

Instead he said he would want a “climate compatibility test on every single decision we take in relation to the oil and gas sector”.

Ross interjected, saying: “That’s a no, John Swinney and the SNP are against new oil and gas licences.”

The Scottish Labour leader pledged his party would “put our money where our mouth is” at Grangemouth, where the oil refinery is to be scheduled to be closed.

Sarwar said: “We would step in to save the jobs at the refinery and invest in that transition by making an energy transition hub at Grangemouth, and we would put hundreds of millions of pounds behind it.”

Scottish Lib Dem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton, who enjoyed tame exchanges with Sarwar, said the extension of marine protected areas proposed by his UK-wide counterpart on Monday had been done in consultation with fishing communities.

This was in contrast to abandoned proposals from the Scottish Government last year which angered rural people.

“The UK policy (proposed by the Lib Dems) has actually learned from the mistakes of the widespread and hated highly protected marine areas,” he said.

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