Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and Conservative chief whip Michael Gove praised the SNP leader’s debating skills but warned of the consequences of an Ed Miliband administration propped up by the Nationalists.
The Conservatives attempted to persuade voters that returning David Cameron to Downing Street was the only way to prevent a Miliband-led government forced to the Left by the SNP.
The day after the historic seven-way ITV debate saw both Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband claim to have proved to be the most convincing prime ministerial candidate.
However, analysis of post-debate polls suggested that Ms Sturgeon was judged the best performer during a hotly contested two-hour encounter that drew seven million viewers.
On the streets of Edinburgh yesterday, Ms Sturgeon received a rapturous welcome from her supporters. Questioned by reporters, Ms Sturgeon said she had “enjoyed” the occasion and repeated her call for Labour to join with the SNP to keep the Conservatives out of power.
Three snap polls taken in the immediate aftermath of the event suggested the contest had been incredibly tight. But when the the results of the YouGov, ICM and ComRes surveys were combined, Ms Sturgeon came out on top by a narrow margin.
Pooling the three polls saw the SNP leader judged the winner by 21.7 per cent of those sampled, closely followed by Mr Cameron (21 per cent), Mr Miliband (20.3 per cent) and Ukip’s Nigel Farage (20 per cent).
Ms Sturgeon’s accomplished showing will boost SNP campaigners, who are already anticipating an increased cadre of Nationalist MPs will play a key role in post-election negotiations.
Senior Tories appeared happy to acknowledge Ms Sturgeon’s performance, in the belief that the prospect of a Nationalist tail wagging a Labour dog will turn voters towards Mr Cameron.
“She certainly outshone the other challengers last night, let’s hand that to her,” said Mr Fallon.
“But she did rather give the game away, in that she didn’t just say she would prop up a Miliband government, she actually said she would ‘Keep him honest’, by which she meant she would keep him Left-wing, she would keep him on a path of departing from our fiscal plan.
“That is extremely dangerous. That would jeopardise our recovery and it is yet another indicator that if you want the recovery to continue and go on creating these new jobs and getting Britain out of the mess we inherited, the only way to do that is to vote clearly for a Conservative government.” Mr Gove said Ms Sturgeon had been the “most impressive” of the debate debutantes.
Mr Gove added: “I don’t think people would like the potential chaos if you had Ed Miliband as prime minister having to make every decision with Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond auditing it to decide whether or not it is in the interests of Scotland or Scottish Nationalism, rather than the United Kingdom.”
Labour countered through the shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint, who accused the Conservatives of hyping up Ms Sturgeon because of the SNP threat to Scottish Labour seats.
“They would love Nicola Sturgeon to do well, because that puts David Cameron back into Number 10. At the end of this campaign, it is a choice of who’s going to be the prime minister and that’s between Ed Miliband and David Cameron. If Scots don’t want David Cameron, they should think very carefully about voting for the SNP.”
Campaigning in Corstorphine, Edinburgh, Ms Sturgeon denied that voting for the SNP would send Mr Cameron back to power.
Ms Sturgeon said: “If the SNP and Labour combined have more MPs than the Tories do, if there is an anti-Tory majority, we can lock David Cameron out of Downing Street.
“I’ve challenged Ed Miliband, and I do so again: if we have that anti-Tory majority, the SNP has said we will vote to stop a Tory government even getting off the ground.”
Ms Sturgeon also repeated her attempt to reassure UK voters outside Scotland, saying: “My main audience is Scottish voters but I also want to make clear to voters in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that we want to be allies in winning more progressive politics.”
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