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Pro-UK parties could yet stop an independence majority at Holyrood because even “hardline” SNP voters are unsure about Nicola Sturgeon’s mid-pandemic push for a new referendum, the Lib Dem leader has claimed.
Launching his party’s manifesto, Willie Rennie said the SNP vote was “softer than I’ve ever seen it” in the current campaign and insisted it was “all to play for”.
He predicted that momentum could rapidly swing away from the nationalists in the final weeks of the campaign, despite opinion polls currently suggesting a pro-independence majority after May 6 is a near certainty.
The Lib Dems have said the next Holyrood term should be focused on recovery from the pandemic rather than a new independence vote.
The party is proposing large increases to spending on mental health services, a jobs guarantee for young people and play-based education up to the age of seven. It also published proposals for MSPs to be able to vote to hold Scottish ministers in "contempt of parliament" after the SNP repeatedly defied votes in the previous term.
The Lib Dems won just five seats at Holyrood in 2016 but Mr Rennie insisted his party had the potential to make gains across Scotland, highlighting Caithness, Sutherland and Ross as a seat he believes he can take from the SNP.
“There's a lot to play for, and the vote amongst the SNP is softer than I have ever seen it,” Mr Rennie said. “The hesitation amongst the SNP voters is considerable.
“There was a lady I met the other day, she's been a hardline SNP supporter all of her life. She said she was just not sure this time, and [her reasons were] Alex Salmond and pushing an independence referendum in the middle of a pandemic.”
He also claimed that centrist Tory voters were moving to the Lib Dems because they were put off by a “harder, darker edge” to the Conservatives under Douglas Ross.
He claimed socially liberal voters attracted by the “bubbly and bright” Ruth Davidson at the last election did not like the current incumbent.
Mr Rennie said the Tories had adopted more right wing positions under Mr Ross and cited a masked photocall on a military jeep as an example in which he “just looked a bit darker”.
Asked about Mr Rennie’s comments, Mr Ross said policies such as expanding free school meals for school pupils showed that the claim that the Tories had lurched to the right were wrong.
“That is something that no-one could say was a move to the right under the Scottish Conservatives,” he said.
“I think people looking at our policies would see a Scottish Conservative Party that has listened to communities and sectors across Scotland, as I promised we would, and has responded.
"If Willie really disagrees with that, that's fine. I disagree with the fact that he thinks it's a major political event for him to sit in an oversized deck chair.”