Roseanna Cunningham was set to blow.
The Environment Secretary is the universal unit of measurement for how badly Ruth Davidson is duffing up Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions.
When the Tory leader starts to irk the FM, Republican Rose spins in her chair and gives her the shoulder.
When Davidson taunts her opposite number about a broken promise or policy failure, Cunningham rolls her eyes with all the subtlety of a late-career Lana Turner.
Yesterday, the shoulder swung, the eyes juggled, and a scowl – 9.5 on the Cunningham Scale – stormed across her face. Ruth was dishing out a doing.
Inevitably, the topic was education, the brief Nicola Sturgeon calls her number one priority, thus proving Scottish schoolchildren are not the only ones who have trouble with numbers.
In 2012, the SNP introduced new rules giving parents a right to know about school performance and subject choice.
‘Six years on, how many schools are actually complying with those regulations?’ Davidson enquired innocently, as if she didn’t already have the answer. Sturgeon didn’t know. Education Secretary John Swinney, usually hunched over whispering the answers, didn’t know either.
Maybe she could find out and write to the Tory boss?
No need, for the hunter had already sprung her trap. ‘The answer to the question that I asked is just 7 per cent.’ Ouch.
Heroically, Sturgeon volunteered the other foot for a snare of her own devising. She brought up the issue of primary one testing and needled Davidson for her shifting stance. Deflection is a skill but reminding everyone that you’re evaluating five-year-olds on their critical analysis of Janet and John Take Their First Standardised Assessment is pure art.
Teachers hate P1 testing. Unions hate it. Lefties hate it. Even the Conservatives hate it. Sturgeon reminded Davidson her party had flip-flopped on the matter. In fairness, it’s a right-wing policy so the Scottish Tories almost certainly stumbled on it by accident.
‘The Tories are good on rhetoric but they tend to put short-term, party-political interests over the interests of pupils in our schools,’ Sturgeon said, without a hint of irony – mostly because she had just clubbed it to death.
From the Tory benches came strangled guffawing and stunned gasps. Jaws hit the floor. I worried Ruth Davidson might go into labour. I worried Jackson Carlaw might, too.
The Conservative leader sputtered at first but found her stride: ‘The First Minister, who has the gall to talk about someone else inflating their education rhetoric, is the woman who, a year ago, heralded a flagship education Bill as the most radical transformation of our schools since devolution and then promptly threw it in the bin.’
Cunningham was tutting like a locomotive chugging out of the station.
For good measure, Davidson added: ‘The First Minister says that education is her top priority, but is the truth not that, when she is put to the test – any test – she fails?’
Cunningham was pure steam. Sturgeon sat down, rattled. At least she would get an easy ride from Richard Leonard.
Not so much. The Labour leader deployed Davidson’s tactic. Did the First Minister know how many referrals for children’s mental health services had been rejected since she came to office?
She did not – but, what jolly, he did.
‘The answer is almost 25,000.’ Breaths were sharply in-taken across the chamber. Sturgeon talked up investment announced in her Programme for Government but, to her credit, there was a hint of shame in her voice.
The First Minister probably thought the worst was over. Then Tory Liz Smith pointed out the freefall in modern languages in schools. Pupils sitting French exams were down 60 per cent. Judging by her expression, the FM had a few French words of her own in mind.
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