Scottish Liberal Democrat election gains 'can stop SNP majority'

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media captionWillie Rennie urges disillusioned SNP voters to try his party in May's Holyrood election

The Liberal Democrats can stop the SNP winning an overall majority at the forthcoming Holyrood election, the party's Scottish leader has predicted.

Willie Rennie used his speech to the party's virtual conference to say the Lib Dems can win seats in every region of the country on 6 May.

He said these gains would help avoid having "a government that can do whatever it wants, however damaging".

And he pledged to prioritise the recovery from the pandemic.

The Liberal Democrats currently hold just five of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament, with opinion polls suggesting that the SNP could be on course to win a majority.

Mr Rennie argued that the Scottish Conservatives are set to lose seats in the election, while Scottish Labour will "take time to find their feet" under new leader Anas Sarwar.

He will say: "The Greens will always back the SNP when they need them.

"The Liberal Democrats, with our plan to put recovery first, are ready to win more seats.

"Our gains will make the difference between a government that can do whatever it wants, however damaging, and a government that has to listen."

Mr Rennie also pledged help education "bounce back" after the pandemic, saying there should be a guaranteed job for every available teacher, to help cut class sizes,

Mr Rennie said: "It means getting every trained teacher, and every available pupil support assistant, into classrooms, not on the waiting list for a supply day."

Looking for divine inspiration

Analysis by BBC Scotland Political Correspondent Andrew Kerr

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image captionMr Rennie's speech was broadcast during the party's virtual conference

Willie Rennie delivered his virtual speech in a church with Lib Dem banners behind him as he stood at the podium.

As the sun streamed in through the stained glass windows, it's maybe a party on the look-out for divine inspiration.

What is the purpose of this party, they may ask?

The Nick Clegg coalition government ended up reducing their numbers at both Holyrood and Westminster.

The Europe ship has sailed - with Brexit now a reality, the best Mr Rennie can weakly say is they managed to "delay" it slightly.

And the party looks as though it's been swept aside in the torrent of constitutional arguments about the future of the United Kingdom, with the SNP and Conservatives to the fore on that one.

With ten years under his belt as party boss, Willie Rennie's heard it all before and still delivers a relentlessly upbeat and optimistic message.

He hits out at the "two Tasmanian devils in a never-ending cage fight" that would represent those battling out indyref2 and instead wants to focus on Covid recovery.

Mr Rennie's put his money where his mouth is by offering to support the SNP's budget, if they accept his demands.

The party's Covid recovery plan echoes long-running Lib Dem goals of improving mental health provision and the nation's education system.

Asking for disillusioned SNP voters to back the party, the Lib Dems hope they can make gains.

They're promising to help reform the UK and an olive branch was held out to the new Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar to that end - "rekindle the old alliances" that helped create Holyrood.

A "better way of working together" would mean "federalism", the great Lib Dem article of faith.

Willie Rennie is certainly on the look-out for new converts.

The conference has been discussing plans to create a federal UK, which they say would give Scotland and the other nations and regions a bigger say in how the country is run.

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image captionUK Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said the SNP plan for independence would harm the NHS and hit jobs

The party's UK leader, Sir Ed Davey, told the conference on Friday that the SNP's plans for independence risked creating "Brexit 2.0".

He added: "Liberal Democrats want to put recovery first. The SNP want to break up first.

"Liberal Democrats have plans to recover the health and jobs of the Scottish people, SNP plans would harm the NHS and hit jobs across Scotland."

The SNP's leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford, has predicted that a second referendum on Scottish independence could be held "as early as late 2021" if his party wins the election.

Protecting jobs

Mr Blackford stressed that the first priority of the government should be dealing with the pandemic.

He added: "When we've got to that position of safety, that would be the right time to have the referendum."

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's leader, would not be drawn on Mr Blackford's remarks when she was asked about it by journalists during the government's daily coronavirus briefing.

But his comments were branded "reckless and wholly irresponsible" by the Scottish Conservatives, who said everyone's efforts should be on "tackling Covid-19 and protecting jobs."

Scottish Labour said people wanted politicians to focus on uniting the country during the Covid crisis and "not more division".

The Scottish Greens say recent polls have suggested they are on course to win their highest-ever number of seats in the election, which could ensure another pro-independence majority in parliament.