FMQs analysis: Sturgeon on offensive as Indyref2 looms large

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A few weeks ago, a second referendum was the elephant in the room at First Minister’s Questions.

Two weeks on, and the issue of Scotland’s constitutional future is the only issue in town.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

The First Minister was confronted today on the announcement she made on Monday that she intended to seek the power to hold a referendum before Spring 2019.

Since Ms Sturgeon took part in her weekly Q&A with MSPs, it has emerged that Theresa May will reject that request.

But with rumours swirling early this morning, perhaps a whisper of that rejection had reached the First Minister’s ear – as her opponents found out today, she was in a mood which saw her on the attack in a distinctly Salmond-esque manner.

Do the Math

For an all too brief moment, it seemed that for once the issue of independence might be avoided at FMQs.

Ruth Davidson raised a story that was personally embarrassing for deputy First Minister John Swinney, a school in his constituency asking parents to help teach maths.

As it happened, that was just the preamble for the question on the issue at the forefront of everyone’s minds – independence.

Ms Davidson wanted to know how the First Minister could justify to pupils and their parents faced with falling education standards that indyref2 was a reasonable priority for the Scottish Government?

Nicola Sturgeon has spent her political life fighting for independence, so she was unlikely to sidestep the issue.

READ MORE: Theresa May to block indyref2 until after Brexit

What shocked many observers was to see the First Minister in full campaigning mode, haranguing Ruth Davidson for backing a ‘hard Brexit’ proposed by Theresa May and even seeming to test out some familiar slogans.

As the Scottish Tory leader pressed the First Minister on an independent Scotland’s starting deficit, Ms Sturgeon said that the best option was for Scotland to ‘take control’ of her own finances.

If that rings familiar to referendum watchers, it is because ‘Take back control’ was the mantra of campaigners urging Brits to vote to leave the European Union.

Not likely slogan bedfellows for the staunchly pro-EU First Minister, but Theresa May’s blunt rejection of the indyref2 plans means Nicola Sturgeon might get more time than she thought to hone her campaigning message.

Where the SNP leader was strongest in her back-and-forth with Ruth Davidson was in bringing up the calamitous performance of arch-Brexiteer David Davis in front of a Westminster select committee yesterday.

The Minister for Brexit told the committee that there had been no analysis of the potential economic impact of the UK walking away from the negotiating table with our former EU partners without a deal.

Ruth Davidson rather fluffed her closing line, ending on the barb that the First Minister should respect the Scottish Parliament.

That was slightly undermined by Ms Davidson’s podium appearance a mere hour after FMQs, at which she said the UK Government was right to not respect a Scottish Parliament vote on another referendum.

For Shame

If Ruth Davidson had caught the First Minister on the defensive, it was even worse by the time Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale took her turn.

Ms Dugdale quoted reports that leaks from the SNP’s Growth Commission had spelled out the grim economic situation an independent Scotland would find itself in.

Dismissing the reports out of hand (and the Growth Commission chief had already done so) Ms Dugdale was confronted with the word of the day – shameful.

It was shameful, insisted the First Minister, that Labour would seek to deny Scottish voters another say on the constitutional question.

READ MORE: How do the polls look since Sturgeon’s announcement?

Ever an unhelpful spectre over Kezia Dugdale, Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to Scottish politics again reared its head, as the First Minister gleefully quoted the Labour leader who said he was ‘fine’ with the prospect of another vote.

As Kezia Dugdale pushed the First Minister on some of the ‘day job’ elements that the SNP was apparently neglecting to pursue independence, Nicola Sturgeon warned her adversary in her best acid tones that the Scottish Labour Party would ‘continue to die’.

Not entirely parliamentary for the First Minister to appear giddy at the prospect of the third largest party in Scotland to disappear, but she was in her element now, and once again it seemed like Alex Salmond had returned to Bute House.

Rhetorical flourish

Even Willie Rennie, afforded a series of questions every other week, wasn’t spared the wrath of the First Minister, as he asked the same rhetorical question on whether Scotland could find itself out of the EU common market and the UK.

“The answer is yes,” insisted Rennie, making one wonder why he had asked it in the first place, but the First Minister wasn’t finished yet, as she turned her ire on the Scottish Lib Dem leader.

After being accused of sucking up to the Eurosceptic SNP voters (a sizeable minority, if polling is to be believed) Nicola Sturgeon accused Willie Rennie of sucking up to the Tories.

A reference to the long-gone coalition Government formed by Nick Clegg and David Cameron, or the Better Together campaign? The First Minister wasn’t clear.

Time and again the First Minister cast the unionist parties in Holyrood as some kind of homogeneous group, at once stage declaring that “the band was back together”.

Unfortunately for Nicola Sturgeon, it seemed the only thing back was the abrasive style of Alex Salmond, something that No campaigners say helped turn off voters in 2014, especially women.

If the next referendum is to have a different outcome, the First Minister may have to look beyond her predecessor for inspiration tone.