MSPs returned for the inaugural First Minister’s Questions of 2018, rested and refreshed over the New Year and sporting the finest in Christmas-gift fashion.
Johann Lamont snuggled under a fetching ivory woollen scarf while a radioactive tangerine tie threatened to ignite around Jackson Carlaw’s neck. Angela Constance essayed a cranberry painter’s smock that suggested a quirky maiden aunt had left present shopping to the last minute and finally resorted to the laundry hamper.
The tidings of the season were nowhere to be found yesterday and none of the party leaders wished their opposite numbers a Happy New Year. It was down to business for a rowdy, shouty, blame-hurling stramash and as the volume soared the quiet-spoken presiding officer Ken Macintosh kept his head down lest they turn on him next.
Ruth Davidson enquired whether the number of hospital beds had gone up or down. It had ‘changed’, grimaced Nicola Sturgeon, which the Tory leader helpfully translated as ‘down by 2,000 in five years’. What of social care places for elderly patients? Had they ‘changed’ too? Indeed, they’d been cut by more than 700.
Sturgeon was answering in her capacity as First Minister of Scotland and Cabinet Secretary for If You Think Your Broken Hip is Bad, You’d Be in a Coma Down South.
‘The benchmarks for success are the targets that we set ourselves, not what is happening elsewhere in the UK,’ Sturgeon intoned and it sounded for a fleeting moment like she might be about to take responsibility. Reader, she tried. The First Minister managed a whole 57 words before she digressed onto bed numbers in English hospitals.
We are at most two weeks away from the First Minister saying, yeah, waiting times targets are still not being met but there’s a plane crash on Holby City and the anaesthetist on Casualty just left his comatose wife for that locum nurse in dermatology who came back from the dead.
Sturgeon’s evasions are frustrating enough but her impression of Harold Macmillan needs work: ‘You’ve never had it so slightly less worse than people in Middlesbrough.’
Labour leader Richard Leonard asked when she was going to take responsibility for the NHS winter crisis, giving the First Minister the opportunity to pivot from healthcare in England to what Scots really care about — healthcare in Wales.
‘Bingo!’ shouted Labour MSP Neil Findlay and the opposition benches cracked up. When she’s not deflecting criticism onto the English NHS, it’s the poor doctors and nurses of GIG Cymru getting it in the neck. The cackles of Labour and Tories were telling. They used to fear her; now the First Minister is a hapless figure of fun.
Her face roiling with thunder at the guffawing, she relented and fingered a culprit that, while neither her nor her Health Secretary, at least had the advantage of being based in Scotland. Sturgeon protested that there had been increases in ambulance calls and A&E visits. So that’s who was to blame — the patients. The health service was doing just fine until all these people had to go and get sick.
By this point, Willie Rennie was furious, or as furious as a Liberal Democrat gets. He reminded her that she spent five not terribly stellar years at the helm of the Scottish health service before becoming First Minister. (If nothing else, she gives Jeremy Hunt hope for the future.)
Rennie’s hackles were up and so were his octaves and he let into the SNP leader with a bracing ferocity.
‘The First Minister really has a brass neck… She cannot hide behind the NHS in England or even the NHS in Wales, and she cannot just blandly thank NHS staff over and over. We are all proud of our NHS staff in enduring the conditions that have been created by Nicola Sturgeon, but is she really proud of what she has done to our NHS?’
The First Minster looked winded. She’s probably still waiting for an ambulance.