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First Minister defends stance on indyref2 and controversial 'rape clause'

ITV Border Political Editor, Peter MacMahon with Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon Photo: ITV Border

Even her most fervent political foes will admit - in private at least - that Nicola Sturgeon is one of the most accomplished politicians in the United Kingdom.

She is confident, clever, composed, always on top of facts and figures, and more recently has allowed her sense of humour to show in public. But she's still a politician, and politics inevitably involves a mixture of hard-headed calculation, ruthlessness and a willingness to indulge in a certain amount of tacking and gybing.

Her opponents say the first minister has indulged in this latter practice - it's a yachting term in case you wondered - over independence.

For example: all three of her SNP candidates in the south of Scotland told ITV Border this UK election was "not about independence".

Yet the SNP manifesto clearly states that if the Nationalists win the election it will reinforce their Holyrood election mandate and a vote for indyref2 by the Scottish parliament (the SNP plus the Greens).

So which is it? In my interview with her for Representing Border, I asked the First Minister about this apparent anomaly.

She explained again her view about the mandate but said that this election was about more than independence.

She would not, of course, contradict her candidates though non-nationalist parties will draw the conclusion that the SNP is trying to have this election both ways.

I also pressed Ms Sturgeon on the so-called 'rape clause', where women who want to claim child tax credit for a third child have to prove the child is as a result of “non-consensual conception”.

The First Minister has been a highly outspoken critic of this policy, which was legislated for by the Westminster government in 2015, describing it, among other things, as "abhorrent".

I asked her about the powers coming to Holyrood under the Scotland Act 2016 which give the Scottish parliament the power to create new benefits or to top-up existing benefits.

She did not deny that such a power exists but argued that - to paraphrase - if her government stepped in Westminster would be tempted to make further benefit cuts knowing Holyrood would pick up the bill.

Peter MacMahon and Nicola Sturgeon Credit: ITV Border

Again this will be seen by her opponents - the Tories who have born the brunt of her attacks in particular - as double-standards.

They will argue that the First Minister has railed against this 'heinous' policy but will not use the power she has to do anything about it.

And they will claim that the SNP has already undermined its position by moving to do something - involving spending more than £100 million - on the 'bedroom tax'.

Ms Sturgeon was adamant that this was a point of principle, and the best way to counter this policy was to elect SNP MPs will argue for the complete abolition of the child tax credit policy.

Depending on your point of view that is a hard-headed calculation, or an important point of principle which, however difficult it might be, needs to be adhered to.

There was more in this interview. Security came up in the wake of the London bombing. She attacked Theresa May's record but did not go so far as to argue that maintaining police numbers in Scotland would, of itself, prevent a possible terrorist attack here.

And we discussed Ms Sturgeon's record in government - something which keeps being raised by voters even though this is a Westminster election and issues like health and education are fully devolved to Holyrood.

The First Minister has been much interviewed over this election, both by the Scottish and the UK media, and it is very rare that she is wrong-footed.

But as she herself said to me, it is right that she and her party are robustly challenged. Ahead of the election, I hope this interview made a contribution.

You can watch it in full and make your own judgement here: http://www.itv.com/news/border/topic/representing-border/