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Crucial final debate could shape voters general election choice

Credit: STV

Do debates between politicians matter? Yes, they do. And we saw that again tonight on the STV Scottish leaders' debate, which we also showed on ITV Border.

They expose politicians to the public - a carefully selected politically balanced group - and in this case anyway, to each other.

And it was in the time the politicians had to cross-question each other that it got heated, and we learned something.

The revelation of the night was Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader and First Minister, claiming that Kezia Dugdale, the Labour leader, had told her after Brexit her party would drop its opposition to a second independence referendum.

At the end of the debate, Ms Dugdale admitted that the two had spoken and shared their 'devastation' over the Brexit result.

However, Ms Dugdale said the idea that she would do anything "other than protect the UK was "absolute nonsense".

Minutes after the debate Ms Dugdale Tweeted:

Credit: STV

Ms Strugeon then responded that Ms Dugdale could change her mind but chided her for "having a go at me for giving people a choice" - she meant on a second independence referendum.

But what came out of the debate was, perhaps not surprisingly, the parties reverting to what they think are their strong points and attacking their opponents weaknesses.

For the Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, there was a very, very difficult time over the so-called 'rape clause' - the limit to two children for tax credits - when pressed by other leaders.

Nicola Sturgeon asked: "How do Tories sleep at night."

Women who have children by "non-consensual conception" have to prove this has happened to get a benefit for a third or subsequent child.

Ms Dugdale told Ruth Davidson: "Your Tory party is just as callous and heartless as it has always been."

The Lib Dems Will Rennie joined in asking if Tory MPs from Scotland would vote at Westminster for the 'rape clause'.

Ms Davidson told them that her party's policy was committed to welfare reform, to make work pay, and this was part of it.

Credit: STV

She also argued that money saved from benefits reform - cuts her opponents say - would go to the NHS.

The question is whether this issue will change the way the electorate votes, and there are some who believe that it will not hurt the Tories.

It is also worth remembering that, complex and possibly expensive though it might be, the Scottish parliament can create new benefits and mitigate other Westminster benefits, as the SNP has done on the 'bedroom tax.'

And Nicola Sturgeon has not denied that Holyrood has those powers. You can read more on this in my blog here: http://www.itv.com/news/border/topic/representing-border/

On other issues, the First Minister found herself under pressure over her record in power.

This is a Westminster election but the SNP has been in power at Holyrood for 10 years, and Ms Sturgeon has been FM for nearly 1,000 days.

There is no denying that education standards in literacy and numeracy are falling. Ms Strugeon says she is acting to do something about that.

And the SNP has missed many waiting times targets they themselves set, though Ms Sturgeon points out they have a better record than the NHS in England.

Credit: STV

What we do not know is how these issues will play with the key voters in marginal constituencies.

What matters most to them: issues like benefit reform or health and education or Brexit?

Or even a second independence referendum where Ms Sturgeon was again under attack from her Unionist opponents.

It is likely that different groups have different priorities and make their choices on different issues.

And then there is the issue of the political leaders. As it happens all four tonight are MSPs. None of them will become MPs, but they set the tone for their parties.

A full day of campaigning to go. Tomorrow the parties will be back to simple, key messages.

But having been at the debate tonight I hope - indeed I think - this debate will help people make up their minds.