Like it, or loathe it, BBC Question Time is one of the most watched political programmes on television. For politicians, it is no easy ride. When I used to prepare Labour Party panellists for Question Time outings, the planning was rigorous. What might the audience ask? How might different panellists react?

Preparation was vital. Dozens of pages of briefing were produced every week. There was always an appreciation that one throwaway comment or angry exchange with an audience member could derail an election campaign or even a promising political career.

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Question Time remains popular because it is one of the few places where political rhetoric comes into direct contact with voters, with very little mediation. It’s one of the few places where polled and focus grouped lines get an immediate judgement from the public. It is a nerve-wracking high wire act for everyone involved.

As Covid-19 has removed most of the possibility for spontaneous interactions between politicians and the public, phone ins and televised debates are one of the few places they can still happen.

That might explain why Nicola Sturgeon is so reluctant to appear on tonight’s episode of Question Time. Every other party leader will be represented, but the SNP is sending their Deputy Leader.

Why? When you are flying so far ahead of your rivals in the polls, there really is little advantage to doing televised debates.

When Nicola Sturgeon has faced one on one interviews, or the public, during this campaign, it’s often left her exposed.

In the first debate, she faced hostile questions from the audience about independence. In recent interviews with Channel 4 and ITV, she admitted there’s no up to date economic assessment of independence – quite the admission given that she wants an independent Scotland within the next five years.  

Ciaran Jenkins at Channel 4 News identified at the start of the campaign that the SNP leader was limiting her availability to journalists, with press officers refusing to say where the First Minister would be each day, presumably in an effort to exert greater control over the media narrative and avoid moments like this.

For political leaders and their staff, that might make life easier. But for voters it leads to political campaigns removed of all spontaneity and reduced to a procession of 30 second clips on the evening news.

Those around the First Minister probably think controlling her outings is doing her a favour, making her appear above the fray as the other political leaders fight it out for the runners up prizes.

But for many others, it is a habit that will eventually make her look out of touch and distant from the people who she is asking for support. If you’re not willing to take questions from members of the public on Question Time, then what next?

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It’s also a handbrake turn for a party that used to spend election campaigns asking for more time on air for their leaders, not less. Nicola Sturgeon used to demand her place in TV election debates and called out Theresa May when she avoided them in 2017.

No one will suggest that Nicola Sturgeon avoiding an episode of Question Time will cost her the election (spoiler: it won’t) but it speaks to a much deeper tendency in the SNP to avoid scrutiny, to roll eyes at journalist who ask difficult questions and to dismiss challenging members of the public as “unionists”.

Perhaps it’s time for 2021 Nicola Sturgeon to listen to 2017 Nicola Sturgeon’s advice to the Prime Minister: “If [she] doesn’t have the confidence to debate her plans on TV with other leaders, broadcasters should empty chair her and go ahead anyway.”