The new Fantastic Four looks rubbish. Photo: Getty
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4 things we learned from the Scottish TV debates

Nicola Sturgeon isn't half as impressive when someone gets up in her grill, and Labour must thank their lucky stars that Ruth Davidson isn't moving south any time soon.

Nicola Sturgeon benefits from condescension

"You can have your opinions, but you can't have your own facts," Jim Murphy told Nicola Sturgeon, "You might get away with it in England but you won't get away wit it here." The First Minister was still a dominant figure but she was some way distant from the imperious figure she cut in the UK-wide debates. What happened? There, she was effectively left unmarked by Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, despite the threat she poses to both their parties. Here, she faced an audience and a group of political opponents who were willing to get in her face and really challenge the SNP's record, leaving her a much-diminished presence. Challenged on her record she cut a cantankerous and at times marginal figure. Team Miliband should take note ahead of their second clash with Sturgeon on April 16. 

The Liberal Democrats need a new tune

The Liberal Democrats haven't done too badly, you know. Stronger action against female genital mutilation than any other government. The 0.7 per cent aid target enshrined in law. And they've done more to remove the stigma around mental health than any other party. Yes, there have been disappointments and the Janus act over tuition fees has, rightly, cost the party a great deal. But they have a more positive message, surely, that "look at this shower". A miserable "plague on both your houses" message did nothing for Nick Clegg last week and did even less for Willie Rennie tonight. Time for the party to start shouting about its values and achievements, not merely attacking the other parties. 

Labour will thank their lucky stars that Ruth Davidson is unlikely to cross the border anytime soon

Ruth Davidson lists kickboxing as one of her hobbies but, on this evidence, it should really be listed as a key skill. It's all too easy for the third party to end up squeezed in these affairs but she was more than a match for Jim Murphy or Nicola Sturgeon. More importantly, she seemed to have a hunger for the fight that, as Ian Leslie noted, appears to have abandoned David Cameron. She has the advantage, too, that she doesn't sound posh; when she talks about people who struggle, it sounds like something she's lived, not something a focus group spat out. "The best leader Scottish Labour will never have," was the quip of one Labour strategist during the referendum. Labour will hope she remains the best leader that the Conservatives will never have at a UK-wide election, too.

The Union's not done yet

45 per cent. A narrow loss in an independence referendum, a narrow majority under the Holyrood election system, a crushing defeat under the Alternative Vote,  and a landslide at Westminster. But not a majority, and there was a reminder of that tonight when Nicola Sturgeon was booed for not ruling out another referendum for the forseeable future. The SNP's monopoly on the forces of independence looks unlikely to be challenged at Westminister - although at Holyrood the Greens will have a thing or two to say about that - but there's no evidence yet that there is any real movement towards the SNP's preferred solution. Scottish politics, which feels so vital at present, could in fact be headed for a period of prolonged stasis, with the Nationalists unassailable at Westminster and Holyrood, but continually frustrated on the question that provides them with a raison d'etre.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.