This week she was ready for them.
Last Thursday, Nicola Sturgeon was a jabbering mess under the inquisitive glare of Jackson Carlaw, a man whose interrogation techniques are less The Sweeney, more Hetty Wainthropp Investigates. His idea of roughing up a suspect is correcting their grammar.
The First Minister was poorly prepared for questions about Alex Salmond. She looked shifty — a wrong’un.
Yesterday she brought her best stony face. She looked like the head of a problem family fighting an eviction order. They’ve obviously been up to no good but they know their rights and ain’t sayin’ nuffin without speaking to their brief.
Her squad brayed and jabbed their fingers at the opposition benches, barely able to keep their seats as their exasperation levels went from mild frustration to Christina McKelvie doing long division.
For those keeping count at home, there are now five investigations under way. There’s a parliamentary inquiry, a government inquiry, a ministerial code inquiry, an Information Commissioner inquiry, and a police inquiry. Never let it be said that this government isn’t a job creator.
Jackson Carlaw’s every attempt to elicit more information about what Sturgeon knew and when she knew it — the Nixon questions — was rebuffed by precisely worded replies. ‘It is time to respect the inquiries that opposition members have called for and that I and my government have supported.’
It was important to remember the two women at the centre of this, Sturgeon said. You could hardly forget them if you keep having secret meetings with the subject of their allegations. Anyway, her feminist turn didn’t last long and soon she was talking up independence.
That is how she hopes to distract voters from her role in what Carlaw called ‘this tawdry business’, like a Kirk elder who had caught the minister’s wife trying to pass off an M&S walnut loaf as her own in the church fete baking contest.
Keeping schtum is a canny strategy for a party one public brawl away from its own Jeremy Kyle special but makes for a dull question and answer session. Besides, as Carlaw pointed out, the First Minister is only refusing to respond in the chamber; her special advisers are still briefing journalists behind the scenes. Off-the-record phone calls to political correspondents — that’s how you respect a parliamentary inquiry.
Carlaw having got heehaw, it didn’t look promising for Richard Leonard. But the Scottish Labour leader ended up teasing out the two most newsworthy nuggets from the proceedings. First, he queried whether Sturgeon would hand over all relevant documents — not just government memos but internal SNP ones too.
‘We will provide whatever material they request,’ Sturgeon ventured, hesitantly. If you have shares in shredders, I’d hold onto them.
The second titbit extracted by Leonard was on the chairmanship of the parliamentary probe. Under Holyrood’s rules, it’s the SNP’s turn. He asked: ‘Will it step aside and ensure that an MSP from another party chairs the inquiry?’
Heads turned in the First Minister’s direction and finally the human form of ‘no comment’ had something to say: ‘It is not me who is establishing the inquiry and it is not me who will decide who will conduct the inquiry.’
A murmur rippled through the chamber. She didn’t seriously think her party could investigate itself, did she? Scotland might be run by Govanhill’s answer to the Ceaușescus but we’re not yet a banana republic.
Patrick Harvie, a little man with a high horse, used his questions to scold Messrs Carlaw and Leonard for quizzing Sturgeon on Salmondgate. You can’t ask questions of the First Minister in here. This is First Minister’s Questions.
Instead, they should be talking about Brexit, which was ‘the biggest political crisis for generations’. Not even in the next breath but the same one, he urged Sturgeon to press ahead with a second independence referendum. He’s the Crocodile Dundee of nationalism: ‘That’s not a political crisis. This is a political crisis.’
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.