Party conferences are the pantomime season of political life.
Star turns and bit players tread the boards, competing for the limelight with hammy monologues and broad humour. There are in-jokes, knowing looks, the familiarity that nods through gags that would otherwise be considered a bit on the edge. Everyone has a hearty laugh, heads down the pub, and with any luck someone remembers to write down whether they voted for or against gender-neutral lightbulbs and community service for serial killers.
The grand dame of yesterday’s SNP panto was Derek Mackay. He’s the Scottish Government Finance Secretary, which means Nicola gives him pocket money and tells him what to spend it on. But he gets to make announcements to parliament as if he’s actually setting the budget and he seems happy enough.
Mr Mackay is the heir apparent, though it’s always been more apparent to some than others. His tenure in the moneybags brief has not gone smoothly. He was forced into a jowl-searing U-turn on business rates after a public scolding from Alex Salmond. He delivered the Budget with sweat-pumping nervousness and the plodding monotone of a secondary pupil delivering his first modern studies class talk and hating every minute of it.
Conference 2017 was his chance to rekindle the party’s affections for him. Going by the rapt response, the romance is back on. Mr Mackay didn’t offer grandiloquent rhetoric or daring new ideas but that’s not what conference is for. He took centre stage, the lights illuminating his overly made-up visage and impeccable salt’n’pepper coiffure, and sang for his supper.
‘I don’t want to give my age away,’ he set off with a twinkle. ‘I had a big birthday this year. Twenty-one.’
There followed a three-act routine: ‘We’re Dead Brilliant’. ‘The Tories are a Shower’. ‘We Will Do Other Stuff in the Future, Details Pending’.
The first part largely focused on the Queensferry Crossing, which wasn’t a crossing but a ‘landmark’, then it was a ‘symbol’ and finally a ‘message’ — ‘A message to the world. We are Scotland. We build bridges, not walls.’ If on the off-chance Donald Trump was sitting in the Oval Office watching a livestream of the SNP conference, I’ll bet he felt put right in his place.
His assessment of the SNP’s economic record was rosé-tinted; after a few glasses you might be convinced. ‘Unemployment is at a record low level,’ he heralded, ‘and employment is at a record high level.’ So that explains why Shona Robison is still in a job.
Of course, there had been ‘challenges’. Politicians love that word. It lends their blunders the thrilling elan of Anneka Rice jumping out of a booming helicopter. One ‘challenge’ had been the global collapse in the price of oil but ‘external forces’ were to blame for that. It’s lucky the SNP never proposed it as a basis for setting up a new state or anything.
Then came the baddies, in this case Ruth Davidson and her squad. ‘We’ve gone beyond the point of the Tories talking Scotland down,’ Mr Mackay pronounced in a sullen simper. ‘They’re now actively wishing Scotland to fail.’ It was like listening to the speeches of Joe McCarthy as read by Widow Twankey.
As the final curtain loomed, Mr Mackay remembered the conference theme, ‘progress’. That rather implied the doing of things, didn’t it?
‘This is a progressive government in action,’ he whooped. Why they were going to… um… lift the public sector pay cap! Yes, that was a policy. ‘We’re told there’s no money… but public sector workers deserve a pay rise. Come what may, we will scrap the pay cap.’
Hear, hear! What kind of miserly, penny-pinching finance minister could have kept down the wages of hard-working teachers and nurses? Ah, of course, Derek Mackay. Awkward. It wasn’t so much a case of ‘look behind you’ as ‘look in the mirror’.
It was a bravura performance of political hackery. It wouldn’t win any standing ovations from the voters but Mr Mackay left cheering members eager for an encore.