Ruddy-cheeked and hale-bodied, crowned by modest locks of greying gold, the Scottish Conservative leader cut a less dynamic than usual figure at First Minister’s Questions.
This pregnancy is really taking its toll on Ruth Davidson, I thought to myself, before squinting and realising it was Jackson Carlaw. Davidson is off having a Tory tot and has left her (centre-)righthand man to hold the fort. Carlaw, a curious alloy of Willie Whitelaw and Hyacinth Bucket, is more likely to measure up the fort for Jane Clayton tailor-pleated drapes.
But, just as Mrs Thatcher said of her deputy Whitelaw that ‘every Prime Minister needs a Willie’, every street brawler like Ruth needs a Jackson.
An afternoon tea dance of a man, Carlaw glides in the chamber, waltzing his way through political knife fights and nodding warmly at even the most belligerent foes, swallowing brickbats as politely as an overdone scone proffered by the vicar’s wife.
A Thatcherite bomb-thrower back in the day, Carlaw has mellowed into genial elder statesman and now brings the bonhomie of the Whitecraigs golf clubhouse to Holyrood.
This, quite frankly, is not on. FMQs thrives on knock-down, drag-out fist-flying bouts. The sketch writers’ union will be filing a complaint with the relevant authorities.
Our worst fears were realised when Carlaw opened with a paean to Nicola Sturgeon: ’This is a failure of character on my part, which my party can scarcely forgive, let alone understand, but, as well as fully respecting the office of First Minister, I actually quite like the First Minister.’
Alison Harris peered at him, nonplussed. Should they try switching him off and back on again?
But Carlaw had subtly disarmed the First Minister. ‘I’m not sure whether I’m expected to reciprocate all the nice things that Jackson Carlaw said to me,’ she stumbled.
Carlaw, having taken the sting out of FMQs, then used his questions to raise the life-scarring mesh implants given to women by the NHS.
‘This has surely been the greatest self-inflicted health scandal since the thalidomide scandal in the 1960s,’ he ventured. No rancour, no point-scoring. This was going to be a grown-up conversation.
The Australian government had recently apologised to the victims of its mesh scandal. Would the First Minister do the same? She did, and it was sincere.
Sturgeon noted, however, that only the UK Parliament had the power to ban implants outright. Carlaw pledged that the Tories would help her lobby Westminster. Would she consider extending the Blue Badge scheme to those whose mobility has been hampered? Indeed she would; the Social Security Secretary would be in touch.
Nationalist backbenchers were beginning to fidget. Most weeks, they’d be howling themselves hoarse by this point but this unseemly outbreak of civility had them at a loss.
It was quite a feat from Carlaw. He gave a decent accounting of himself, made the First Minister better in the process, and delivered a sensible, even-tempered session. Still, it’s hardly in the spirit of the occasion.
Praise be for Willie Rennie, who got stuck in over the 100,000 times the Scottish Government had broken its own law on NHS waiting targets.
‘If a member of the public were to break the law that many times,’ the Lib Dem leader chirped with a wicked twinkle in his eye, ‘they would serve time in Barlinnie. Why is it that when the SNP government breaks the law, it thinks that it can get away scot-free?’
Sturgeon looked like she’d happily do time for Rennie. If you could squeeze the Green MSPs into a Prius, you could fit the Lib Dems into the boot, with room left over for the membership, and yet Rennie plucks on Sturgeon’s nerves more than any other party leader.
That’s no bad thing. She ought to be kept on her toes. Every First Minister needs a Willie.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.