Ian Swanson: Nicola Sturgeon’s EU intervention will be timely

Nicola Sturgeon with Ed Miliband, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood and David Cameron on a TV debate before last year's general election. Picture: PA
Nicola Sturgeon with Ed Miliband, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood and David Cameron on a TV debate before last year's general election. Picture: PA
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NICOLA Sturgeon returns to the UK airwaves tomorrow night for a televised debate on the European Union, leading an all-female line-up to argue against Brexit.

The First Minister shot to political stardom when she appeared in the TV debates for last year’s Westminster general election. She had just taken over from Alex Salmond a few months earlier but impressed a UK-wide audience with her clear and concise arguments and emerged an unexpected winner in the showdowns with the likes of David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage.

Tomorrow, she will speak alongside Labour’s Angela Eagle and Tory Amber Rudd, while the opposing line-up will be former London mayor Boris Johnson, Labour MP Gisela Stuart and Conservative minister Andrea Leadsom.

The EU referendum debate still does not seem to have taken off in Scotland. But at UK level, broadcaster ITV was clearly keen to draw on Scottish talent to put the Remain case in its keynote debate.

It is not clear how much difference these TV confrontations make to the outcome of an election or a referendum, but they can certainly add interest, especially if the campaign is otherwise proving a bit on the dull side.

Mr Cameron has been remarkably reluctant to engage directly with his opponents, insisting he will not take part in “blue on blue” debates with other Tories and also failing to go head-to-head with Ukip’s Nigel Farage.

Sadly for him, the referendum does not look likely to have a good outcome for the Prime Minister, whatever the result of the vote on June 23. A Brexit victory would almost certainly force him to quit, but even a Remain verdict could trigger recriminations inside the Conservative Party with a similar ending.

The tone of the EU debate so far has been overwhelmingly negative and has left many voters annoyed and confused.

It may be too much to claim that Ms Sturgeon can lift that mood. But her entry into the debate at this stage does inject a fresh voice with a distinctive message.

Ms Sturgeon comes to the debate with huge personal and political capital. That surge of respect she gained at the general election saw her quickly become the most popular politician in the UK. At the ensuing election, her party won 56 out of the 59 Scottish seats.

Later in the year, she was also declared the most popular living Scot, ahead of Andy Murray and Billy Connolly in second and third places.

And she went on to win a personal mandate and an unprecedented third term for the SNP at this year’s Holyrood elections, even though the proportional voting system denied her an overall majority.

Tomorrow night’s debate offers Ms Sturgeon the chance to put a convincing case for staying in the EU based on a different vision of Europe from that of the Conservatives.

That is arguably the voice that has been missing most so far and needs most urgently to be heard if the move to Brexit is to be halted. Polls this week have shown Leave in the lead again, despite earlier claims they had lost the economic argument.

Gordon Brown’s intervention in the closing days of the independence referendum in 2014 was credited by many with helping to stop a Yes victory. Can Ms Sturgeon perform a similar role and help keep Scotland – and the rest of the UK – inside the EU?

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com