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The only winner of Nicola Sturgeon v Kezia Dugdale is Ruth Davidson

“I’m not having a go at you, Kezia . . . What you’re not entitled to do, though, is always have a go at me.”

By Julia Rampen

Scottish politics turned a bit Jeremy Kyle on Tuesday night. In the middle of a TV debate, Scotland’s First Minister alluded to a phone call that took place between her and the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Kezia Dugdale. Then the Scottish Conservative and Unionist leader, Ruth Davidson, jumped in. 

In true daytime TV style, here’s the whole exchange in full:

Nicola drops the bombshell…

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Nicola Sturgeon: “You and I spoke the day after the EU referendum. And you told me then you thought the change occasioned by Brexit that you thought Labour should stop opposing a referendum. Now you’ve changed your mind but why should everybody else in Scotland?

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Kezia Dugdale: I only said-

Ruth assumes the mantle of a reality TV host…

Ruth Davidson: Can I just walk you back four minutes? Did you just tell people, that you had a private conversation with Kez Dugdale last June, where she said she was going to drop Labour’s opposition to independence?”

Nicola Sturgeon: “She said she thought Brexit changed everything and that she didn’t think Labour could any longer go on opposing a second independence referendum.”

Everyone descends into recriminations…

Kezia Dugdale: “We did speak on the phone after the EU referendum result to share how devastated we were about it, because of the damage it was going to do to Scotland’s economy and future jobs. But the idea that I would do anything other than protect the UK and fight for us to remain within the UK is an absolute nonsense.”

Nicola Sturgeon: “Well, look, I know what was said. I’m not having a go at you, Kezia, you’re entitled to change your mind. What you’re not entitled to do, though, is always have a go at me just for wanting to give people in Scotland a choice.”

So what did we learn from this exchange, apart from the fact that the Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie, who was left shuffling his papers, might as well have spent the night in his slippers? 

First, indyref2 is like the midge Dugdale just can’t swat. She has fought hard to gain the trust of pro-Union voters by sticking to a strict anti-referendum line. Unfortunately, her colleagues keep going rogue (the latest was David Martin, a Labour MEP, who floated backing independence if the UK gets a bad Brexit deal).

Dugdale may say Sturgeon’s claim is “absolute nonsense”, and Scottish voters may believe her, but every minute talking about the phone call is another minute spent talking about indyref2.

But second, Sturgeon doesn’t come off looking particularly shiny, either. What kind of pal (or even deadly enemy) blabs about a private phone call on national TV? In fact, Dugdale has also referenced the phone call before, but swing voters have long suspected the First Minister is an election-winning robot crafted in the mid-Nineties Central Belt. This kind of steely confidence-breaking confirms it.

The only real winner, then, is Davidson. Not only did the former TV journalist manage to hit both her opponents (sorry, Willie Rennie), with one zinger, but it was on the subject where her party is strongest. If the Scottish Tories are on course for their best election result since 1992, it’s no accident.