SNP & Scots Labour unlikely allies after TV debate

THE prospect of a governing deal between Labour and the SNP was at the forefront of hostilities last night during heated exchanges ­between Nicola Sturgeon and Jim Murphy in a live television showdown.

The leaders of the four main political parties in Scotland squared-up last night in an election debate. Picture: PA

The First Minister openly courted a deal with Labour as she offered to help put Ed Miliband into Downing Street, claiming that they would need support from Nationalists to achieve power. And the SNP leader again refused to rule out the possibility of another independence referendum by 2020 if the SNP wins power at next year’s Holyrood election.

The leaders of Scotland two main parties squared off in the debate which was staged at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms, along with Ruth Davidson of the Tories and Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie. Ms Sturgeon insisted Labour would not secure a majority without SNP support, insisting: “I’m offering to help make Ed Miliband Prime Minister.”

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But Mr Murphy hit back: “We don’t need your help to do that.”

The pair also had a series of clashes over education and austerity measures in the first major face-off between the ­Scottish leaders.

It came on a day which saw the election campaign in Scotland step up a gear and former Prime Minister Tony Blair make his first appearance of the campaign to warn Scotland would have been left in a state of economic “trauma” under independence. And Prime Minister David Cameron was also in Scotland meeting financial services workers in Edinburgh and warning that Nicola Sturgeon has got it wrong on the “big questions of our time” on the constitution and economy.

Last night’s debate came after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was widely hailed as the winner of the UK TV debate held last Thursday after a strong showing against the likes of Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband in Manchester.

It meant last night’s debate attracted high interest south of the Border given the SNP’s potential role as kingmakers in the event of a hung parliament.

“Labour’s plan is based on a simple premise which is that Scotland succeeds when working families succeed,” Mr Murphy, who was elected Scottish leader four months ago, told the audience.

And he rejected claims that Labour can’t secure a majority.

“The rest of Britain can’t do it without us. Only Labour is big and strong enough,” he said.

Mr Murphy has earlier asked Ms Sturgeon if she wanted “Ed Miliband to be Prime Minister” as the pair clashed in early exchanges. The First Minister said: “I don’t want David Cameron to be Prime Minister. I’m offering to help make Ed Miliband Prime Minister, so I think you take your answer from that.”

But the Labour leader hit back: “We don’t need your help to do that. What we need is people north and south of the Border …coming together to kick out an out-of-touch government.”

Mr Murphy told the First Minister that the last time the biggest party didn’t form a government was 1924. “It wasn’t even a Queen’s speech, it was King’s speech,” he said.

But Ms Sturgeon said polling showed that Labour was unlikely to win a majority.

“What people are hearing tonight is that in the scenario where there is an anti-Tory majority, it appears that Jim and his colleagues would rather see David Cameron back into Downing Street than work with the SNP.

“I think people across Scotland … will find that utterly inexplicable.”

Mr Murphy had earlier faced tough questions from the audience over his support for the Clyde-based Trident nuclear weapons system which Nationalists want scrapped.

He insisted that he did not want his “grandchildren’s generation” left without the nuclear deterrent when countries like Iran and North Korea want to acquire them.

The Labour leader also repeated his pledge to end zero hours contracts, but clashed again with the First Minister who insisted Labour’s plans will result in more welfare cuts of up to £30 billion in the coming years.

“You talk the language of anti-austerity cuts, but you’re proposing more cuts,” the SNP leader said.

But Mr Murphy hit back accusing the SNP leader of “misleading” viewers over the figures she was quoting.

The pair also clashed over Mr Murphy’s recent pledge to keep university education free, with Ms Sturgeon pointing out he had backed fees south of the Border in 1997 and in 2001.

But her own record came under fire as she was accused of doing a “Nick Clegg” over the party’s U-turn in 2007 on a pledge to abolish student debt which was scrapped soon after the SNP came to power.

“You’re First Minister, but you’ve got a second rate record when it comes to education here in Scotland,” he said.

The prospect of another referendum being included the SNP manifesto for 2016’s Holyrood election remains on the cards

“The point is the people will decide,” she added.

It opens up the prospect of another referendum by 2020, despite claims during last year’s referendum it would be a “once in a generation” event.

The First Minister had earlier been forced to defend her proposals to reverse spending cuts over the impact this would have on the UK national debt.

The Greens were excluded from last night’s debate because Ofcom ruled they were not registered as a major party in Scotland, despite objections from party co-leader in Scotland Patrick Harvie.

Recent polling evidence suggests that the SNP is poised to make sweeping gains in the vote in four weeks time. A YouGov poll this week found that support for the SNP stood at 46 per cent – compared to Labour support which is at 29 per cent. The Lib Dems are facing wipeout after their support plummeted to only 3 per cent.

It means that the SNP can expect to take anywhere between 40-50 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats or possibly more.

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has spent the campaign attempting to defend the party’s record in the coalition and insisted last night it had resulted in tax cut of £825 for millions for worker through the rise in the personal allowance. But Mr Rennie faced a tough time from the audience over the party’s record in government with the Tories and was accused of “betrayal” over university tuition fees which saw charges of £9000 a year introduced.

”I’m sorry that you feel betrayed by that — we made a mistake on tuition fees,” he said.

He admitted that many people who were supporters of the party felt “let down” by this legacy. But he added that the party was behind the “biggest tax cut for workers ever”, as well as the pensions increase and expansion of childcare.

“Look at the things we’ve got right,” Mr Rennie added.

Tory leader Ruth Davidson had gone on the offensive over the NHS, calling for prescription charges to be scrapped for the well off. “I would put that money into front-line care to pay for nurses and to pay for health workers,” she added. “Let’s spend a bit of money, let’s raise a bit of money and give the health service the support and the money it needs.”