Tom Peterkin: Rare friendly gesture before debate

JIM Murphy strode across the television studio to shake Nicola Sturgeon by the hand before the outbreak of hostilities at the Assembly Rooms last night.

The hostilities between the pair soon began. Picture: Getty

It was a rare friendly gesture during two hours of feverish debate between the Scottish political leaders.

The rarity of the gesture was matched by the rarity of the first admission made in the opening exchanges.

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In a bold move, Murphy said he “didn’t have all the answers”. Tugging at the heartstrings, the Labour leader described how he had been confronted by a tearful young mother, who could not afford to buy shoes for her daughter. Faced with such heartbreak, Murphy said he may not know how to sort out everything but he did believe in the minimum wage.

Fresh from her storming performance in last week’s ITV debate with David Cameron and Ed Miliband, Sturgeon tried to move the debate on to familiar territory.

Returning SNP MPs to Westminster would keep Labour “honest”, the SNP leader said.

Her first challenge was to her arch-rival Murphy. Would he join with the SNP and commit Labour to forming an anti-Tory alliance that would keep Cameron out of Downing Street?

Murphy’s response was to fire back with a question of his own. “Do you want Ed Miliband to be Prime Minister?” he asked Sturgeon.

“Nicola, I don’t need your help to do that,” he said, before adding that the best way to harm Cameron was for voters north and south of the border to vote Labour.

Under the watchful gaze of STV’s political editor Bernard Ponsonby, Sturgeon was questioned by audience members. A member of the public, who looked rather like an off-duty chartered accountant was concerned that the SNP was a big spending party at a time when there was a deficit that needed to be taken care of.

She grew increasingly animated when challenged about the possibility of a second referendum.

Sturgeon said she “respected” the No vote, but did not rule out another - a point that raised an audible groan from the No voters in the audience. That did not put off another questioner, who pointed out that the SNP had said the referendum was a once in a generation opportunity.

As Willie Rennie began to field questions it was clear there was a large albatross hanging round his neck in the form of the Lib Dem broken promise on tuition fees.

“We made a mistake on tuition fees, I can’t deny that,” said a repentant Scottish Lib Dem leader.

Then there was a dramatic increase in tempo as the debate entered the final lap. Traditional party battlelines of a bygone era opened up as Murphy and the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson clashed with finger-wagging intensity on food banks. For a moment, Sturgeon was a by-stander before she seized her chance to agree with Murphy and condemn “Tory cuts.”

What chance of a handshake afterwards?