The First Minister is like Judith Chalmers in reverse

Willie Rennie is a Lib Dem for people who otherwise view Lib Dems with suspicion.

He spurns sandals in favour of sensible brogues and does not have the look of a man who carries an emergency supply of lentils on his person at all times. I doubt a spoonful of muesli has ever passed his lips. True, he still looks like a cross between a trendy vicar and an impish mongoose but he comes closer to normalcy than most in that preening palace of pomposity at the foot of the Royal Mile.

When he took to his hind legs at First Minister’s Questions, the air of mischief was gone and it its place was steaming, molten fury. A letter had gone out to colleges on a ‘wet Wednesday afternoon’ last week in which the SNP’s punishing austerity regime on funding appeared to have been dropped. Did Nicola Sturgeon really think she could get away with quietly ditching a policy she piously defended for years even as it slashed 150,000 college places?

Miss Sturgeon’s answer was desultory, blathering about ‘the needs of the economy at any given time’ and trumpeting the fall in youth unemployment as ‘the proof of the pudding’. The pudding gave Mr Rennie heartburn and he’d well and truly had his fill.

‘So nothing has changed but everything has changed. That is a bizarre answer. Has the policy changed or not? Surely if it had been a success, she would have been parading it in the parliament.’

His voice roared up the octaves. Miss Sturgeon sat stunned.

‘Everyone knows that the birth rate at the turn of the century is more responsible for the drop in youth unemployment than any policy of the government. The truth is that it has taken six years for the government to realise the economic value of part-time learners over the age of 24.’

Fury fogged the air. The Lib Dem leader’s j’accuse reached its crescendo as Nationalists caterwauled at his blasphemy.

‘This is a crashing U-turn, and the First Minister should be big enough to admit it. Six years of narrowing the focus has left us short. We have had six years of missed economic opportunity and six years of those in the chamber who dared to question the policy being abused.’

Thrum! Thrum! Thrum! The percussive smack of palms on desks began on the Labour backbenches and within seconds had exploded across the chamber like a thundering rocket. Ruth Davidson was banging away in approval of Mr Rennie’s jeremiad and her colleagues were merrily thumping too. Someone had broken through the forcefield of dissembling, projection, and petty dramatics that ever-swirls around the First Minister. Mr Rennie took his seat, not with satisfaction but resignation — the First Minister is too virtuous to have a sense of shame. Still, small victories and all that.

The Nationalist leader had already gone several rounds with Miss Davidson and Alex Rowley on the NHS. A damning report from Audit Scotland found no progress in seven out of eight areas over the past five years. The Tory and Labour leaders slugged away but Miss Sturgeon ducked and distracted. She took MSPs on a busman’s holiday around the British Isles, cooing over all the exciting destinations to choose from. Asked about standards in the NHS in Scotland, she took a detour to waiting times in England. Pressed on nurses’ pay under the SNP, she headed for Wales and a political row in Cardiff over the salary cap. The First Minister is like Judith Chalmers in reverse. Wish You Were Anywhere But Here.

Perched beside her the whole time was the Health Secretary, keeping monastically hushed as MSPs lamented the combination of waiting lists and understaffing that has turned Scotland’s NHS into a Soviet-era Holby City. Who knows how Nicola Sturgeon’s best friend Shona Robison manages to keep her job.

Not to worry. The First Minister had fingered the real culprit standing in the way of change in the NHS. ‘The impediments to that change sit on the opposition benches,’ announced the head of a government now in power for ten years.


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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at image © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

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