Like a sharp-suited shark-hunter, John Swinney dumped the chum in the water and waited. The blood pooled out, the scent spread, and the feeding frenzy began.
It was the first day of SNP conference in Glasgow and Nationalists were having a right old time tearing chunks out of the opposition.
The Deputy First Minister got the proceedings under way. ‘Sensible John.’ ‘Honest John.’ ‘Bank Manager John.’ Mr Swinney’s reputation is that of the reasonable face of the SNP but when the circumstances call for it, he becomes ‘Assassin John’, a cold-blooded political killer whose tools are well-aimed barbs and cudgels of execration whomped down on opponents’ heads.
He bellowed: ‘Labour and Tory are not so much locked in a battle for the future of this nation but in a battle for who can break Twitter first.’
A roar of approval. Bashing Labour or the Tories always goes down well here but thumping both at the same time is the real crowd-pleaser.
‘Things are now so bizarre that I find myself agreeing – possibly for the first time ever – with Jackie Baillie. She was spot on when she labelled her Labour colleagues hypocrites who have betrayed the values of their party. My only question is why did it take you so long to come to that conclusion Jackie? It’s been crystal clear to us for a long, long time.’
That one was a bit laboured but the hall stomped away enthusiastically all the same. Nationalists react to the Dumbarton MSP like Count Dracula to a bulb of garlic. She drives them absolutely blind with fury. It’s splendid to watch.
Mr Swinney wasn’t done. There had been bad poll numbers lately and he did his best to spin them. Sure, the voters were fleeing in their droves and taking any hopes of another Holyrood majority with them but, technically, the party was polling two percentage points higher than a few years ago. As he repeated that line, with all the plausibility he could muster, Mr Swinney recalled Leslie Nielsen as Frank Drebin, the hapless detective of the Naked Gun. Addressing a crowd of onlookers at the scene of a disaster, he urges: ‘Please disperse. Nothing to see here.’ Behind him another explosion smashes a building to dust.
If this was a brave interpretation of the facts, it was nothing compared to the Education Secretary’s take on his own brief. Higher passes up, more youngsters getting to university, the children of deprived families getting a step on the ladder. As he waxed lyrical about this paradisiacal school system, it struck me that whatever other problems we have in Scottish education we’re doing just fine in creative writing.
Now, while everything was just dandy at the blackboard, Mr Swinney was unveiling a new £20,000 bursary to entice more people to train as teachers. Scotland has lost 4,000 teachers under the SNP and in a number of schools parents are being asked to help out. The situation is so bad that some pupils are missing out on vital lessons like Scots-language mathematics and how William Wallace invented the bunsen burner.
‘Progress’ is everywhere at SNP conference. Emblazoned across the glossy agenda, tacked onto the podium. Most of the energy is directed at shoring up their place in government, patting themselves on the back for past successes, and sniping at their Tory and Labour tormenters. Of course, ‘progress’ serves another purpose. The SNP are bemused and unnerved by the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon. Like the rest of the political class, they don’t understand it but are aching to tap into it. Nationalism used to be where the kids were at; now they’ve all dyed their hair, ripped their jeans and gone to live in a Maoist squat in Islington.
Maybe another dig at the Tories and the bête noire of Twitter liberalism would do it. Mr Swinney puffed himself up, the ecstatic applause already ringing in his ears. ‘We will not be listening to right-wing, educationally ill-informed Twitter personalities who haven’t done their homework. And no, I don’t mean Katie Hopkins. I mean Ruth Davidson.’
A healthy chuckle but nothing more. That’s the problem telling jokes about the SNP’s handling of education. The punchlines are all sitting round the Cabinet table.