There it was.
Ten minutes into the first question time of 2019, peppered with queries on her role in the Alex Salmond investigation, Nicola Sturgeon dropped the hand grenade at her own feet.
She was busy insisting her meetings with the former First Minister were not Government business when Jackson Carlaw asked who else was present. A pause for breath, and then: ‘At the first meeting, my chief of staff was with me.’ Her chief of staff is a Government employee.
This was new and yet there were no theatrical ‘oooohs’. When there is a phony row doing the rounds, you can expect all sorts of panto cawing to ham it up. The hushed mood in which her admission was received gave away what MSPs on all sides were thinking: This is serious.
Tellingly, Sturgeon’s answers were met with only smatterings of applause from behind her. Up in the press gallery, a gaggle of photographers crammed together like a giant Nikon hydra, snapping away at finger-straining pace. What perfunctory claps there were below were drowned out by the frantic click click click of merciless lenses.
Sturgeon chose her words carefully, like a too-clever-by-half solicitor up before a sheriff already onto her. Her answers usually ramble on but now they were cautiously clipped. Adam Tomkins, a far better lawyer, zinged interrogatories from the Tory wings. ‘Why did you meet him?’ ‘How is that not intervening?’
Her responses faltered more than once. Sixty-one people were gathered round the First Minister but she has never looked more alone.
Carlaw took his opportunity: ‘Her position appears to be that a meeting between the First Minister of the Government and the former first minister of the Government about a Government investigation involving two Government employees was not Government business.’
He had her – and he wasn’t the only one who knew it. There was a near-complete absence of heckling from the Nationalist benches. Many of them feel Salmond has been poorly treated, others just think the First Minister has bungled the matter.
When even James Dornan can’t be relied on to lob a simian screech at the Tories, you know the First Minister is in trouble. The interrogations of the opposition will not have unnerved her half as much as the silence of the bams.
Richard Leonard tries to amp up his voice but he is a quiet man and this week it served him well. His questions about the Salmond affair sounded so thoroughly reasonable that the First Minister’s efforts to glide around them looked clunky and suspect.
They were sideshows to the main event but opposition MSPs earned their crust too. I’ve long thought the Tories’ Tweedy Jamie Greene was all teeth and no chat. Yesterday, however, he made a ringing plea for the Scottish Government to tackle the growing problem of antisemitism, nudging an issue other parties want off the agenda right back on. Sometimes you misjudge people.
There’s no mistaking Jenny Marra; you’re guaranteed scenes whenever she gets to her feet. She is, as my dear old granddad would have said, the kind of woman you wouldn’t want to bring home an open pay packet to.
That talk probably constitutes a hate crime these days but it was always said with a glint of admiration for fierce, hardy women. The First Minister had tried to sneak a pay packet light £40million past Marra, who was having none of it.
Why had only a fifth of a £50million pot gone to Dundee, still struggling after the closure of Michelin and with talk of compulsory redundancies from the council? The rest, Sturgeon rejoined, was going to the Cross Tay Link road.
By happy coincidence, that project takes in Perth and North Perthshire, one of the SNP’s most marginal seats, whereas the Dundee constituencies are more solidly Nationalist.
Marra hollered something to that effect from her seat as Sturgeon twisted and turned enough to give the planned route a run for its money.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.