For the Daily Record
It is the tax election, the politicians keep telling us, and tax was certainly the issue in the opening sallies of the two-hourathon debate that was the alternative to Scotland vs Denmark last night.
But that is missing the point. This is not a tax election, it is a Nicola election.
Senior SNP strategists predicted long ago that 2016 would not be about the party, the policies or the constitution. It would be about locking in Sturgeon’s relationship with the voting public to the same extent as it is with the SNP.
So every outing is about reinforcing that trust with the voters, in the knowledge that almost half of them are won over already.
To do so she has to fight through the noise of opponent and make sure she does not “drop the vase” as she crosses the polished floor to the finish line.
The STV debate format of cross examination worked well, revealing as much about the politician asking the questions as the person under pressure.
Sometimes it was all against one, but Sturgeon is used to handling that each week at First Minister’s Questions.
But with everyone feeling the heat for the same amount of time, the SNP’s record of nine year’s in office was not on the rack and that serves Sturgeon well.
She is the dominant politician of the decade, and she will remain so until one of those opponents becomes strong enough to tackle her and bring her down.
Here's the scores on the doors:
Ruth Davidson (5 out of 10)
Davidson is a new kind of Tory, arriving at the debate hand in hand with her partner, but under cross examination she struggled to get away from the mantle of being the same old Tory.
She was accused of being “full steam behind George Osborne’s budget”, carried the can for the bedroom tax and would charge £8 for prescriptions and £6000 for student fees.
Getting rid of prescription charges is a good dinner party discussion, but in the real world people don’t vote to have free things taken off them. Tough cross-examination for her in a campaign in which she has to prove herself or be busted.
Kezia Dugdale (7 out of 10)
Dugdale majored on health inequalities and how she would use tax powers to tackle the issue.
However, she gave the impressions of having spent too much time on these nursery visits, with a slightly learned by rote explanation of Labour’s policies. Less earnest, more passion will be the lesson of the night.
Sturgeon found Labour’s bruise, standing with the Tories in the referendum, and punched it again. Ruth Davidson did the same from the Unionist side. Dugdale punched back, but there was a two minute lesson in why Labour is still on the ropes in Scotland,
Patrick Harvie (6 out of 10)
Mr Witty and wily in the waistcoat. Always presents himself as the outsider of the panel and politics, a neat trick that avoids him being pinned down but also means he is not taken so seriously, and he ought to be.
He turned the “hated, unfair” council tax back on Nicola Sturgeon while defending the new Green local tax plans. Harvie is allowed free jabs at opponents but, apart from being coshed by Sturgeon on the Green’s radical tax plans, he was also given a free pass. Wants to be a “challenging, constructive, critic” of the SNP, which reads as being a client state of the government so he needs to differentiate himself even more.
Willie Rennie (6 out of 10)
In a debate that was as much about the past as it was the future Rennie proved that no matter how able his party is not forgiven for being in coalition with the Tories.
Like Labour, Rennie wants early years education to be dividing line between himself and the SNP. But Sturgeon is used to running rings around the Lib Dems, even though some of his sallies cut through.
He was at his best on SNP tax proposals: “The timidity of Nicola Sturgeon is letting Scotland down”. Liked the tie.
Nicola Sturgeon (8 out of 10)
Dominant, and dominating, but by resorting to the tried and tested, interrupting style that forged her reputation when she was on the way up, and which divided public perceptions of her.
For the SNP this election campaign is about cementing Sturgeon as the national leader, yet at moments she forgot she’s not the rebel alliance anymore.
Attacked on plans for another referendum by Ruth Davidson, tackled on tax by Dugdale, pulled up on declining education standards by the Lib Dems - it all just bounced off.
Sturgeon will defend her do nothing tax proposals, she calls them “fair and reasonable”, until she’s blue in the face because she knows despite what people say they do not vote for higher taxes. It’s a strategy for winning.