Jeremy Corbyn has set the 2021 Holyrood election as his deadline for considering a second Scottish independence referendum.
The Labour leader said he would rule out an indy poll in “the early years, the first two years at least” of a Labour government, making it clear the outcome of 2021 Scottish election would be decisive in staging IndyRef2.
In a high-octane two hours of the BBC’s Question Time on Friday night, where four party leaders were cross-examined by a TV studio audience, Corbyn also revealed for the first time that he would adopt a “neutral” stance in Labour’s preferred second EU referendum campaign.
He said that was so that, if he becomes prime minister in three weeks’ time, he could be trusted to implement the result of a second Brexit vote.
The Labour leader has avoided answering how he would vote in a second referendum until now.
The SNP may well hold the balance of power after the election – and Nicola Sturgeon quickly named her price.
Well-oiled soundbites, confident presentation and the ability to quickly move any debate on to her ground are Sturgeon’s hallmarks.
She turned Corbyn’s arguments against him. Talking about the timing of IndyRef2, she asked: “Do you think he’s going to walk away from the chance to end austerity?”
Expect to hear that line a lot over the next few weeks if Labour’s standing improves.
English audiences don’t often get to see Sturgeon close up. They seemed genuinely interested in cross-examining her on independence.
Fiona Bruce found the only chink in the armour when she asked about a confirmatory referendum on independence.
Sturgeon, who backs a second referendum on a Brexit deal but not one on a indy deal, replied: “Let me answer that on my own terms. No.”
She didn’t lose any votes. She rarely does.
He drew cheers and groans in equal measure from the audience as he confirmed his neutrality and sought to explain how a Labour government would solve the Brexit chaos.
He said: “One, we negotiate a credible deal with the European Union. Secondly, we will put that alongside Remain in a referendum.
“My role, and the role of our government will be to ensure that referendum is held in a fair atmosphere, and we will abide by the result of it.
“And I will adopt as prime minister, if I am at the time, a neutral stance so that I can credibly carry out the results of that to bring our communities and country together, rather than continuing in endless debate about the EU and Brexit.
“This will be a trade deal with Europe or remaining in the EU. That will be the choice that we put before the British public within six months.
Jeremy Corbyn disarmed his first inquisitor, who blasted his “reckless socialist ideals”.
But another impassioned questioner on anti-Semitism said he didn’t buy the “nice old grandpa” act.
The questioning in the first 10 minutes was very personal, about integrity. Then followed the meat of the matter – Brexit.
Corbyn didn’t answer directly how he would vote in a second referendum, saying he would “adopt a neutral stance”.
That won applause from his supporters and groans from detractors.
There were quite a few Scottish nationalists who asked why Westminster MPs had the right to tell Scotland when to stage a second referendum.
He said he would rule out a poll in “the early years, the first two years at least”, making it clear the 2021 Holyrood election would be the decisive moment for a Labour government.
Overall, he stayed calm, he made news and he remained neutral. Did he win any votes though?
During her 30 minutes, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, who wants to hold IndyRef2 next year, quickly named her price for supporting Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street if there’s another hung parliament.
She told the audience: “Obviously, I would ask for and expect Jeremy Corbyn to respect the right of the Scottish people to determine their own future.”
On the timing of IndyRef2, she added: “Having heard Jeremy Corbyn, do you think he’s going to walk away from the chance to end austerity, to protect the NHS, to stop Universal Credit, simply because he wants, for a couple of years, to prevent Scotland to have the right to self-determination?”
The Scottish Conservatives were also quick to leap on Corbyn’s admission that he could stage IndyRef2 within two years of entering Downing Street.
Boris Johnson, straight off, was asked a familiar question: How important is it to tell the truth in politics?
The reaction always provokes laughter, even from Johnson himself, who put that Brexit lie on the side of a bus.
But the PM has the charisma to keep people engaged. He can skip questions and get people to listen.
He should have been shamed by talk of food banks and floods, but he tackled the concerns with what at least sounded like genuine concern.
Johnson, painted as a political slacker, has been well-briefed in this campaign, by his own pretty poor standards, to have facts and core messages on the tip of his tongue.
He looked at his shakiest when asked to apologise for his use of racist rhetoric in the past. The weakness was hammered home by Fiona Bruce asking about homophobic abuse.
More accusations of racism, carelessness and misogyny followed and so did the strong feelings of the audience about austerity, Grenfell and Tory management of the NHS.
The longer it went on, the more he lost ground.
Paul Masterton, Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, accused Corbyn of “setting the clock ticking on Labour’s backing for a second independence referendum”.
He added: “In his own words, he is not a Unionist. He is now separatism’s best ally.”
In a format that put each of the four party leaders under similar scrutiny from a studio audience, it was the Lib Dem’s Jo Swinson who fared worst.
Audience members tore into the Lib Dem leader over her policy to ignore the Brexit referendum and her role as minister in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition that took Britain into a landscape of austerity and food banks.
The school prefect, sorry candidate for Prime Minister, was cut down to size pretty quickly by the audience.
The first question was if she regretted describing herself as ready for No10.
Jo Swinson replied: “We live in a weird world where strange things have happened in politics. We’ve all made predictions that turned out not to be true.”
She didn’t handle it well and looked out of her depth from the start.
Already on the defensive, she was pulled up on her voting record, on the 14million people in poverty and the coalition government’s record on austerity.
“I get it we got stuff wrong and we are determined to get it right,” she said.
That drew no applause, whatsoever.
She was confronted by unhappy Leavers and unhappy Remainers.
Fiona Bruce wielded the knife quite effectively: “Has your policy to revoke Brexit backfired?”
Swinson’s overreach showed – on live TV. A miserable night.
Tory leader Boris Johnson was challenged on truth, trust, racism, austerity and the NHS – and took a battering for all these issues.
The audience groaned when the Prime Minister turned a question on how important it was for someone in his position to always tell the truth on to Brexit.
He said: “I think that the issue of trust in politics is central to this election – and fundamental to the corrosion of trust in politics at the moment is the failure of politicians to deliver Brexit.”