The best way to follow First Minister’s Questions, if you really must, is the Marra method.
Simply tune out the dull maundering from the frontbenches and those behind until all you can hear is Jenny Marra. The Labour MSP provides a rollicking running commentary to every excuse, fabulism and self-justification. The BBC should offer it as an option on the red button.
‘Rubbish!’ she hollered at Nicola Sturgeon yesterday, more than once. ‘That’s just rubbish! That’s nonsense, and you know it!’
With every heckle, the SNP leader became more flustered in a question session that was already not going her way. Much of that was down to Labour leader Richard Leonard. Leonard is an old Leftie and, whatever his presentational flaws, he truly believes in all the old songs. Watching Sturgeon pose as a socialist is like a red flag to a bull.
He went in hard: ‘The Scottish Government has said that it plans not to introduce an income supplement to help the poorest families in Scotland until 2022, but wants another independence referendum before 2021. What does that say about the First Minister’s priorities?’
Leonard’s questions miss more than they hit but this one was a bullseye. His target trembled ever so slightly — fury, not fear. Leonard rarely poses any real challenge to Sturgeon. She can outspin him, outperform him, outquip him — but she can’t out-Left him.
She wanted him to back more powers for Holyrood (what’s new?), this time over welfare, and craftily deployed a Jeremy Corbyn quote that seemed to bolster her case. The colour drained from Leonard’s face like an overboiled ham. He knew he’d been outmanoeuvred.
But you can’t keep a good union man down and he remembered an important lesson from his picketing days: if you can’t beat the boss class, you can still lob a good dig from behind the brazier.
Grilled on whether he’d sign a letter demanding a transfer of welfare powers, Leonard snipped: ‘Given its track record, this Scottish Government would probably hand those powers back.‘
It was, as the kids say, an epic burn.
The formiddable (read: terrifying) Conservative Liz Smith ran the rule over the parlous state of subject choice in schools.
Helpfully, Jenny Gilruth, who taught modern studies before becoming an MSP, popped up to polish an apple for the headmistress. Curriculum for Excellence worked better than the old system, she insisted.
‘Does the First Minister think that Liz Smith is wilfully ignoring those facts or has she just not done her homework?‘
A rare member of her profession willing to defend SNP education policies, Gilruth has gone from her party’s pet teacher to teacher’s pet but, despite gold-star loyalty, she remains the head girl of unpromoted backbenchers.
Sturgeon breathed a sigh of relief. The Tories, she sniffed, ‘should listen to the views of a teacher’.
Smith — economics mistress, George Watson’s, 1983-1997 — looked nonplussed. Mr and Mrs Sturgeon can expect to read ‘Nicola must do better’ on the next report card.
Barely could Sturgeon catch her breath before Johann Lamont, a former history teacher, reached for the dunce’s cap.
The Labour MSP scolded: ‘I suggest the First Minister listens to teachers, parents and the evidence from the experts. They tell us that the system is more unequal than it was before.’
The Nationalist benches started getting rowdy, prompting the Presiding Officer to bark: ‘Pay attention!’
Lamont scowled at the class clowns — ‘that would not have happened back in my day, I can tell you’ — and returned to dishing out six of the best to the First Minister.
Ken Macintosh has finally begun to crack down on bad behaviour. At one point the Finance Secretary and Labour’s transport spokesman got into a ding-dong, prompting the PO to tut: ‘Would Derek Mackay and Colin Smyth please stop talking to each other across the chamber?’
The racket ceased quickly. Too quickly for Mackay, who was midway through retorting: ‘Happily!’ Macintosh was not impressed. It’s only a matter of time before someone goes home with lines.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Stephen at email@example.com. Feature image by the Scottish Labour Party via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.