The first minister openly wooed English Labour MPs by committing the Scottish National party to backing key Labour tax policies, pledging that her party would “hold out a hand of friendship” rather than seek division at Westminster.
As David Cameron accused the SNP leader of making a “chilling intervention” in UK politics, Sturgeon confirmed for the first time that the SNP would back most of Ed Miliband’s core tax policies, including a UK-wide mansion tax, a tax on bankers’ bonuses and a new levy on pension tax relief.
“To everyone who, like me, wants this election to herald the real and positive change that will make life better for ordinary people across these islands, I hold out a hand of friendship,” she said as she launched the SNP’s election manifesto.
“The SNP – if we are given the chance – will be your allies in making that change.”
But she soon came under concerted attack from Miliband and other parties for making a series of uncosted promises, including scrapping the introduction of universal credit, raising the state pension to £160 a week across the board, building 100,000 homes a year and insisting that work on the northern stretch of the new HS2 high-speed rail link started in Scotland at the same time as in London.
The party’s manifesto confirmed that the SNP now estimates it has less extra money to spend than previously claimed, after it cut the total value of the SNP’s headline pledge to increase UK spending by 0.5% a year for the second time in less than three months.
After Sturgeon first promised in February that her plans would see UK spending jump by £180bn more than the Tory-Lib Dem coalition’s proposals by using further borrowing, that was cut to £165bn after George Osborne’s budget in March. The manifesto has cut that estimate again to £140bn.
Its only costed policy for increased UK spending was to push up total NHS spending by £26bn, and it remains unclear whether Sturgeon’s increased spending pledges include the billions raised by Labour’s new tax proposals.
Speaking after he addressed the Scottish TUC in Ayr, Miliband told the Guardian there was a clear contrast between the SNP’s proposals and his: “That’s another example of why people should vote Labour. People should vote for a party that has a clear and costed plan, a plan where the sums add up and we’ve shown where every penny is coming from.”
Accepting that the manifesto echoed many Labour pledges, he added: “If the SNP like Labour policies that’s a matter for them. The way to get Labour policies and a Labour government is to vote Labour. The truth is that the SNP are asking people to take a gamble.”
Sturgeon’s overtures are designed to cement the SNP’s 17-point lead in Scottish opinion polls, particularly among ex-Labour voters, but also to make it far harder for Miliband to reject SNP support in the Commons.
The latest polls suggest that a minority Labour government will be forced to rely on SNP backing to push through its budgets, but Sturgeon sought to play down suggestions from her own deputy leader, Stewart Hosie, that the SNP would seek to bully Labour into doing policy deals before a Queen’s speech.
In a strongly worded attack, Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury, told the Guardian that Sturgeon’s spending pledges were “the death sentence for all the hard-earned progress in repairing the public finances and securing this jobs-rich recovery.
“Not only would the SNP force unprecedented cuts in Scotland through full fiscal autonomy, they would foist disastrous economic policies on the rest of the UK too. If any other party put forward the idea that we can borrow our way out of debt, and spend our way to prosperity and magic away the economic facts of life they’d be laughed out of court.
“The SNP don’t just want to break up Britain, they want to break our recovery too.”
However, Sturgeon adopted a far more conciliatory tone over the long-term goal of Scottish independence. The manifesto made no explicit promise to hold another independence referendum and heavily played down the SNP’s halfway house quest for full tax and spending autonomy within the UK.
Sturgeon implied that this key SNP demand was no longer an immediate priority for her party.
Pressed on whether the SNP would seek a quick referendum on independence and create tensions with UK parties, she said: “I’m not seeking in this election to create division with or between anybody.”
David Cameron told the BBC that Sturgeon had made “a series of ransom demands” which would threaten Britain’s defences by allegedly linking support for Labour with scrapping the new generation of Trident missiles.
But Sturgeon appeared to soften the SNP’s recently very hardline position on opposing Trident’s renewal by implying again that no explicit promise was needed from Labour to win SNP backing on other topics.
In several significant signals that the SNP was taking a more conciliatory line with Labour, she stepped back from her own position in the first televised leaders’ debate that English voters should back the Greens and Welsh people should vote Plaid Cymru. If a local Labour candidate was a “progressive” choice, she said, then voters should back Labour.
She also distanced herself from Hosie’s claims that the SNP would expect to hold advance talks with Miliband on the contents of a minority Labour government’s Queen’s speech. She stated: “The SNP is not going to Westminster to seek to block budgets and bring down governments. We’re going to Westminster to bring positive change.”
This article was written by Severin Carrell and Libby Brooks, for theguardian.com on Monday 20th April 2015 18.46 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010