Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, was accused of being the prime minister’s puppet and a liar over Brexit during ill-tempered exchanges in a televised election debate.
Davidson, whose party is hopeful of seizing up to a dozen seats in the general election, was repeatedly attacked for changing her stance over Brexit as her rivals accused her adopting a series of conflicting stances on the EU.
At the start of a BBC debate, the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said Davidson had begun by opposing Brexit, then wanted Scotland to remain inside the single market and now opposed single market membership in line with UK government policy.
“First she said we needed a seat at the negotiating table and now she has changed her mind,” Sturgeon said. “It seems to me that Ruth Davidson does everything that Theresa May tells her to do.”
Davidson retorted by accusing Sturgeon of also being dishonest about her positions on Europe by attempting to tell voters she wanted to take part in the prime minister’s Brexit talks while simultaneously pushing for a fresh independence referendum.
“Nicola Sturgeon says she wants a seat at the Brexit table but she wants Scotland to be out of the UK and into the eurozone,” Davidson said. “I ask myself, which side of the table does she want to be sat on?”
But Davidson’s past record on Brexit came under attack again from Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, who recalled the Tory politician’s starring role as a remain campaigner in live debates during the EU referendum campaign. In one of those debates, she argued vigorously against Boris Johnson, now foreign secretary, and then a prominent leave campaigner.
“Ruth Davidson called Boris Johnson a liar on three occasions,” Rennie said. “Now she’s standing with Theresa May arguing for a hard Brexit. She’s talking about the opportunities that it presents for the country. If Boris was lying then, does that mean Ruth is lying now?”
Clearly stung by that and parallel attacks on the economic impact of her party’s promised cuts on immigration, Davidson accused Rennie of shameful conduct and scaremongering.
The debate also focused on calls for a second independence referendum and higher rates of income tax, but was dominated by the attacks on Davidson, reflecting the Conservatives’ status as the party most under attack and the threat to SNP seats posed by their surge in popularity under Davidson’s leadership.
However, Sturgeon had difficult phases of the debate. Even though the general election has no direct bearing on Holyrood policy, her devolved government’s record in Edinburgh running Scotland’s schools and hospitals was repeatedly attacked, with Labour’s Kezia Dugdale in particular focusing on falling standards in schools.
Sturgeon was most troubled when Clare Austin, a nurse in the audience, berated her for enforcing a 1% cap on nurses pay since 2008, which meant some nurses were so poor they were unable to eat properly. Austin said she had been forced to use a food bank.
The nurse, a Royal College of Nursing member, said she was not ready to strike against the pay cap but was extremely upset about it. “I would rather leave nursing than strike,” she said, shouting Sturgeon down. “You have no idea how demoralising it is.”
Sturgeon said she was very conscious of the pressures nurses were under but said enforcing the pay cap meant no compulsory redundancies in Scotland. She said her sister was a nurse who, she implied, was also critical of pay rates. “Believe me, she tells me exactly what she thinks,” the first minister said.
The debate, which also featured Patrick Harvie of the Greens and Ukip’s David Coburn, will be followed by a second clash screened by STV on Wednesday.