Nicola Sturgeon backs SNP candidate accused of nurse 'smear'

Nicola Sturgeon has defended an SNP candidate who briefed journalists on a false rumour about an NHS nurse in what opponents are calling a deliberate 'smear campaign'.

NHS Lothian Nurse Claire Austin challenged the First Minister. Picture: Youtube/BBC

The First Minister said she has confidence in Joanna Cherry, who is defending the Edinburgh South West seat, after the SNP front bench spokeswoman apologised for her comments.

NHS Lothian nurse Claire Austin challenged the First Minister over nurses’ pay during a live BBC leaders’ debate in Edinburgh on Sunday.

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In what was the key moment of the debate, Ms Austin told her SNP leader that her salary was too little to live on, forcing her to visit a food bank.

She challenged Ms Sturgeon to make an unannounced visit to an emergency ward to see the pressures on staff for herself.

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Journalists in the debate ‘spin room’ reported that SNP sources wrongly told them that Ms Austin was married to a Conservative councillor, fuelling rumours on social media and prompting a wave of abuse online.

The SNP's Edinburgh South West candidate, Joanna Cherry. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Ms Austin had been pictured sitting next to a Tory councillor in the audience at a BBC Question Time programme in Edinburgh two weeks ago, and said she had been asked back by producers after not being called on to ask a question.

Ms Cherry later posted an apology on twitter directed at Ms Austin, writing: “Sorry I was wrong about twitter rumours. Entirely right that your voice is heard.”

Asked during a campaign stop in Blairgowrie whether she still had confidence in her candidate, Ms Sturgeon said: “In terms of Jo Cherry, of course I have confidence.

“She made a mistake, an honest mistake, and she apologised for that.

The SNP's Edinburgh South West candidate, Joanna Cherry. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

“In terms of the wider social media reaction, I don’t think it’s acceptable to make judgements about somebody’s background.

“The nurse on the debate last night was absolutely entitled to raise the issue that she did and, as I said, she raised an issue that I think is one of the biggest in this campaign, the level and value of real wages, not just in the public sector but in the private sector.”

Launching her party’s general election manifesto, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale also heaped pressure on the SNP over the controversy, claiming the nationalist reaction to be challenged on its record was to start a “smear campaign”.

Ms Dugdale said: “They tried their usual dirty tricks. But it won’t work this time.

“Because more and more people are wise to the underhand ways of the SNP.

“So here’s an idea for Nicola Sturgeon: Stop the muck raking.”

And the Scottish Conservatives claimed Scottish Government minister Jeane Freeman briefed journalists on the rumour in the debate spin room.

Tory MSP Murdo Fraser said: “I was sitting alongside Joanna Cherry as she claimed on the BBC that the nurse was the wife of a Tory councillor. She was being urged to say so by the Scottish Government’s welfare minister Jeanne Freeman.

“It was a disgraceful episode and Nicola Sturgeon and her party should be thoroughly ashamed.

“This smear operation points to something endemic within the SNP.

“Its supporters talk over critics, not listen. And the nationalists will always try to play the man not the ball. This kind of behaviour is utterly unacceptable.”