TV leaders’ debates are always crucial moments in an election campaign.
For the leaders of the political parties, it is their biggest opportunity to reach out to voters and get their big messages across. That is the case this year even more so than usual since they can’t hold mass public events and rallies due to coronavirus restrictions.
Normally, an army of spin doctors and political journalists cram into the debate venue to discuss how the key figures perform in front of the cameras.
The normal hustle and bustle was absent on Tuesday for BBC Scotland’s debate, with the leaders of Scotland’s five main political parties going head to head in a largely empty studio, where they were asked questions by a virtual audience on a big screen.
The debate that ensued left no doubt about the biggest issues in this election campaign: the coronavirus recovery and the prospect of an independence referendum.
No fewer than four of the audience members wanted to speak about whether there should, or should not, be another referendum – and those asking seemed to all have strong views. One man, introduced as Selwyn, pressed SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon on the issue, telling her: ‘Nicola Sturgeon said to us she is focused on COVID and all that goes with it. If that’s the case how did she find time to put an independence bill through parliament while we are still suffering Covid? That’s not a focus.’ Another audience member, Colin, was at the other end of the constitutional divide, telling the pro-Union leaders that they are ‘nothing more than imperialists wanting to rule’.
Although no one can be in any doubt that Ms Sturgeon’s central aim in politics is bringing about an independent Scotland, she didn’t always look comfortable talking about it, particularly when Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross told her to spell out when a referendum will be held. She responded it would be in the first half of the next parliament, ‘assuming the crisis has passed’.
Ms Sturgeon wanted the focus of the debate to be on her response to the coronavirus crisis, and it was on that issue that she was strongest. Her best line of the evening was when she told viewers at home: ‘These are serious times, and they demand serious leadership. We need an experienced hand at the wheel.’
Mr Ross seemed far more comfortable raising the prospect of a referendum than Ms Sturgeon. He will be pleased to have achieved his main aim of showing he will stand up to the SNP leader and be the most strongly anti-independence voice. However, Tory strategists will want to soften his image for the next TV debate and get across more positive messages on policy.
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar was possibly the best political performer of the evening, especially when highlighting the shocking impact the treatment backlog caused by lockdown is having on NHS patients, and his central message that it is time to move on from constitutional division will have an appeal with some voters.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie also got across the threat of five years of debate on the constitution and ‘poisonous’ arguments between Ms Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, who has set up the new Alba Party to compete for votes on the regional list.
Lorna Slater, co-leader of the pro-independence Scottish Greens, was surprisingly less radical than Ms Sturgeon on a referendum, saying it should only happen at some point in the next parliament.
The first TV debate has really launched the election campaign – but with at least two more to come all of the leaders will still believe they have work to do to hone their message to appeal to more voters.