Nicola Sturgeon has rejected claims of putting Scottish independence before frontline services like the NHS and education in the first election TV debate between the party leaders north of the border.
Heated clashes during the STV debate last night also saw Tory leader Jackson Carlaw face a grilling over his support for Boris Johnson - even admitting that the Prime Minister’s previous comments about Muslims and homosexuals were “completely unacceptable.”
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Labour leader Richard Leonard and Liberal Democrat Willie Rennie were also taking part, with the election just over a week away.
Tempers flared when the rivals were given the opportunity to “cross-examine” each other, with the First Minister taken to task for placing a second independence referendum at the heart of the campaign, amid emerging concerns over the NHS and education standards in Scotland.
Delays to the “flagship” children’s hospital in Edinburgh, the growing contamination scandal at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Glasgow and falling standards in maths and science learning were branded “Government failures” by Mr Carlaw.
“For four of the last six days you’ve been doing a tour of the country, rather than undertaking your function as First Minister - which would be to make a priority of these issues,” Mr Carlaw said.
“You’ve actually said that none of these would be your priorities - because what you’ve said is that your priority next week after this election is going to be to demand an independence referendum.”
Mr Rennie branded the PISA results published yesterday on schooling standards “embarrassing.”
He added: “It’s letting down our children. Are you ashamed of letting down so many young people?”
But Ms Sturgeon insisted that the performance of Scots children in reading has improved “sharply and significantly” with just five countries ahead of Scotland.
She said that attainment is rising in Scots schools and the gap in standards between richer and poorer areas is closing. The SNP leader also insisted that the issues raised by her rivals were most important to her.
“These are issues each and every one of them that I focus on every single day as First Minister,” she insisted.
“When you’re First Minister these are all priorities.”
The Tory leader faced a tough time from Mr Rennie over articles the Prime Minister had penned as a journalist, which saw Muslim women compared to “letterboxes” while gay men were “tank top bum boys.”
Mr Rennie said: “It’s indefensible for anyone to support that person as Prime Minister - he’s just a nasty piece of work isn’t he?”
He added: “Are you not embarrassed to have him as your leader when he said these things and he’s backed by these terrible people.”
Rennie had earlier said that Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and far-right leader Tommy Robinson were among the Prime Minister’s supporters.
Mr Carlaw said he was “impressed” by his short record as Prime Minister, including delivering a new Brexit deal.
“I think some of the things he said as a journalist were unacceptable - but there are things politicians have said in all parties which I find unacceptable.”
The Liberal Democrat leader himself later faced a grilling over the party’s record with the Tories in the Coalition Government between 2010 and 2015.
He was accused by Leonard of imposing austerity “on the backs of the most vulnerable people in society.”
“And you think that’s acceptable?” the Labour leader added.
But Labour’s inconsistent position on granting a second independence referendum if Jeremy Corbyn becomes Prime Minister left Mr Leonard floundering.
Jeremy Corbyn has said he could grant a Section 30 order which would allow a second referendum but not in the early years of a Labour administration. Nicola Sturgeon has stated it would be the price of a SNP support to hand him power after a hung Parliament.
Mr Carlaw: “The only thing that you seem to be debating any longer is the date that you’re going to give the referendum to Nicola Sturgeon. I mean have the two of you swapped phone numbers tonight?”
Mr Carlaw appealed to pro-union Scots to “lend” their votes to the Tories to block a second referendum on independence being staged next year.