The demolition of Labour’s Scottish vote took a step forward last night as SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon emerged as one of the clear winners in a historic seven-way leaders’ debate.
One early poll carried out just minutes after the ITV debate ended showed voters across the UK had warmed to a party leader who only five million British people can vote for.
In a debate in which few keys points were scored but many party messages were underlined, Ms Sturgeon led a passionate attack on austerity, going up against a Prime Minister clearly briefed to stick rigidly to a “debt and taxes” economic message.
Mr Cameron stuck to his message to the voters, saying: “Let’s not go back to square one, we can do so much better than that.”
In the post debate briefing which followed the event in Salford David Cameron’s spin team of George Osborne, Theresa May and William Hague all stressed that the PM had succeeded in drilling home to voters the need for two more years of spending cuts to keep the recovery going.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage was frequently painted as the villain of the night, with the six other leaders uniting to turn on him when he repeated a demand that HIV-positive immigrants should be denied access to the NHS, saying “We’ve got to put our own people first”.
Ms Sturgeon led the moral argument against Mr Farage, saying the right thing to do was to treat anyone with a life threatening illness.
The SNP leader frequently dominated the debate, especially with a call for the three main party leaders to make clear if UK nations would be forced to leave the EU if they voted to stay in a referendum which overall voted for a European exit.
Ms Sturgeon said the exchange showed why the “old boys’ network” at Westminster needed to be broken up.
She said none of them could be trusted on tuition fees, adding that she hoped there would be some SNP MPs in the Commons after May to keep the others “honest”.
A strong SNP turn out in Scotland on May 7 would spell disaster for Labour, with Mr Miliband certain to fail in securing a majority in the election without Scottish support.
The debate saw a stronger than expected performance from Nick Clegg, who demanded an apology from Ed Miliband for the economic crash which preceded 2010, clearly rattling the Labour leader.
The debate also saw the end of the coalition as the PM and Mr Clegg repeatedly rounded on each other, with the Lib Dem leader setting out with a clear plan to distance himself from a man he had spent five years working alongside.
Ms Sturgeon was judged best-performing leader in the ITV debate in a poll of 1,117 viewers by YouGov.