There was no anger in the First Minister’s voice but her face wore the weight of her frustration.
As the questions came, she cast razor glances from her notes to Jackson Carlaw and back, gurning and muttering as she did. Carlaw was making it all so much worse by posing measured queries in a measured tone. Crass opportunism would have permitted Nicola Sturgeon to conduct every sistrum and timbrel of her indignation orchestra. Instead, gentle prodding mandated spare, factual answers.
She told parliament what we already knew (that Derek Mackay had resigned as Finance Secretary) and something we didn’t (that he had been suspended from the SNP and from the parliamentary group). She described his behaviour as ‘unacceptable’ and falling ‘far short of what is expected as a minister’. With that, one of her most senior ministers and closest allies in politics was gone, previous, an unperson.
The chamber was deflated, but so was the whole building. In the Garden Lobby, glances were exchanged; at the coffee bar, grimaces traded. Old foes stopped to whisper in the corridors, shocked momentarily out of tribalisms and ancient enmities. A funereal pall lingered oppressively like stale cigar smoke and in the canteen the talk was cliched and circular, the sort of empty, listless conversations that sustain mourners through a wake. Mackay was spoken about as though he had suddenly dropped dead. Politically, he had.
Carlaw lamented the damage to parliament’s reputation and asked the First Minister if the SNP or the Scottish Government had ‘had any independent contact with the young man or his family’. No, but she would be willing to talk to them if they got in touch. Sturgeon’s voice didn’t break but it took on a wounded quality, not least when she spoke of the previous night’s events. ‘He offered his resignation to me and I accepted,’ she recounted. ‘It was not an option for him to remain in government.’ There it was, a hollowness in her timbre, the numb register of the betrayed.
It gave way quickly to a familiar steel: ‘Derek Mackay is no longer a member of my government. He is suspended from my party; he is currently suspended from my parliamentary group. From the action that has been taken already, it should be obvious to everybody how seriously I, my government and my party treat the matter.‘
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard questioned the First Minister on mental health but prefaced his queries with a firm statement on the fallen Finance Secretary. His behaviour was ‘an abuse of power and nothing short of predatory’ and insisted that he ‘go as a member of the Scottish Parliament’.
The Scottish Greens have more leaders than members and their best is Alison Johnstone, who now alternates with Patrick Harvie at FMQs and has a knack for needling Nicola Sturgeon from the Left. It’s all very well banging on about social justice and public services on the election stump but if you don’t do something about it in government people start to notice. Johnstone stressed the ‘human impact… on patients, doctors and staff’ of lengthy waits in Accident and Emergency departments and quoted a junior doctor who said a lack of medics and beds meant her ward was ‘not safe’.
Sturgeon rejected the idea that ‘the system as a whole is not working’ and ploughed a well-furrowed field: At Least We’re Not As Bad As England, plus an obligatory reference to the ‘outstanding jobs’ that NHS staff do, the implication being that critics are besmirching the efforts of dedicated medics. ‘NHS staff do indeed do an incredible job. My concern is the impact that the strain is having on them,’ Johnstone came back. Her tone was solidly don’t-try-that-one-with-me.
There was still the small matter of the budget. It’s in the nature of politics that, as one career is destroyed, another is forged. In the absence of Derek Mackay, junior finance minister Kate Forbes was thrust onto the front bench. The 29-year-old Highland MSP is largely unknown outside Holyrood but has quietly built up a reputation for hard work and honest dealing. Staunchly Unionist MSPs sing the praises of this staunch Nationalist.
If you’ve ever had a bad day at work, you’ve never had a day like Forbes did yesterday. Delivering a £35billion budget amid an engulfing scandal and under the cosh of the opposition is one thing; doing it with a few hours’ notice is something else entirely. There are baptisms of fire and then there are baptisms by firing squad.
Sturgeon walked her down to the front bench, delivered some words of encouragement, and watched as her junior minister stepped up and became the first woman to deliver a Scottish budget. What she and the rest of the chamber saw was poise, clarity and self-assurance. This was not the budget speech of a neophyte suddenly shoved before the mic; Forbes rattled off spending plans and tax proposals with the businesslike confidence of a minister long-ensconced in the job. If this was her X-Factor audition, she would go straight through to the live finals.
Now comes the scrutiny and we shall see if Forbes’ figures match her rhetoric, but in the chamber she was fierce. ‘Feisty’ Kenny Gibson called her and if it’s still okay to describe a female politician thus, then sign me up too. Murdo Fraser said she had simply ‘filled the black hole’ created by a Scottish economy growing more slowly than its UK counterpart, and urged her to acknowledge the ‘Union dividend’ that had given the Scottish Government more cash to splash.
Forbes gave that short shrift. ‘If the Union dividend is austerity for ten years that’s hit our public services, and a Brexit that we didn’t vote for that’s hit our economy, then I’m not sure that’s a great selling point for the Union dividend.’
There sat Murdo, gas at a peep, but, I think, with a twinkle of admiration in his eye.
No wonder. India-raised, Cambridge-educated, Gaelic-speaking, pro-life, Bible-believing Christian. Kate Forbes is not your ordinary Scottish nationalist but, when placed in an extraordinary situation, she showed what she’s made of.