Sturgeon spoke her mind – unlike the Labour leader

Published by The Daily Telegraph (3rd April, 2014)

There were no real losers in last night’s leaders’ debate, which was surprisingly enjoyable despite looking at times like a strange and rather stilted ITV game show. What a contrast to 2010; I remember watching the first debate sitting alongside Steve Hilton in Tory HQ as Cleggmania took off in front of our startled eyes.  If there there was one clear winner this time around, though, it was the articulate Scottish contestant in her smart red outfit.

It was no surprise to find the first of the post-match polls gave Nicola Sturgeon a clear victory, even if the picture became more muddied as other verdicts landed. From the start the SNP leader performed well, making her points with passion and precision. For many English voters, this would have been their first exposure to the former solicitor who is now Scotland’s first minister and they saw someone coming across as assured and, most importantly, as authentic.

In this, she offered a strong contrast to Ed Miliband. He looked to me rather wooden, unlike in the previous week’s non-debate with Jeremy Paxman,  his mood seeming to match his strangely-sombre style of clothing chosen for the night with that grey tie and dark suit. Perhaps he was nervous or over-coached. Regardless, he must have been envious of Sturgeon for her freedom to speak her mind.

Miliband is, after all, Labour’s most left-wing leader since Michael Foot. Yet for all his boastful talk of political bravery, he has tempered his beliefs in public to the dismay of some close advisers, with stuttering talk of controlling capitalism and half-formed policies of market intervention in energy and housing. While I disagree strongly with much that he stands for, he would have been a better leader if he had been truer to himself. Politics, like public relations, is always most powerful when it reflects reality.

Contrast his strained stance with Sturgeon’s free expression. While Miliband now talks of controlling immigration and Labour sells mugs emblazoned with this slogan, she made a fantastic defence of free movement that shamed all her rivals (especially the increasingly-malevolent Nigel Farage). While Miliband talks of reducing tuition fees, the SNP leader won applause for defending free education. While Miliband meanders around on economic matters with his contorted triangulation, Sturgeon simply attacked austerity.

Much of it is nonsense, of course. Scottish profligacy on public services is propped up by English taxpayers, forced to fund them through the archaic Barnett Formula. For all Sturgeon’s fine talk on health, there was no mention that all those extra doctors, extra nurses and extra funds have delivered significantly worse patient outcomes. Yet for those on the left and, I suspect, many floaters in the middle, there was something seductive about this fiery female politician who spoke without fear – so different to the bloodless social democracy offered by the bland and self-shackled Labour leader last

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