This is war. Whatever gloves were still clinging tendentiously to government and opposition hands over the Alex Salmond inquiry were roughly hoiked off at FMQs yesterday.
In the laws of the schoolyard, Ruth Davidson started it. Truth be told, her FMQs outings since rejoining the Tory frontbench have been solid but nothing more. Yesterday marked the return of the old Ruth, and not the impish banter queen who tripped herself up in the past.
No, this was her serious face, that side of her political personality that is ruthless, brutal, even a touch thuggish, and more than a little self-righteous. Like Tony Blair in opposition, Davidson is, on her best days, a stone-cold demolition merchant, sending a wrecking ball through ministerial spin and happily flattening nuance along the way.
Last January, the First Minister undertook to provide all documents requested by the Salmond inquiry, something which the inquiry chair says hasn’t happened. What, Davidson prayed, had ‘made the First Minister break her word’?
The Nationalist jefe had her answer ready: ‘I have recused myself from making decisions about the Scottish Government’s submissions’. This was clever: promise to cooperate then step down from any decisions about cooperating.
Davidson was onto her: ‘The Nicola Sturgeon who is First Minister likes to pretend that she is not the Nicola Sturgeon who is also leader of the SNP’. Everyone knew, though, that she could ensure the documents were handed over ‘with a snap of her fingers’.
Sturgeon gawped and she grumped, snarled and squealed. If you want to shut down an allegation quickly, go in hard and make a big enough noise to scare off your pursuers. The First Minister’s am-dram theatrics had the opposite effect, making her appear rattled and desperate. It was like a courtroom drama and the SNP leader was all 12 of the angry men.
When growling failed, she turned to guile. She swerved here and limboed there, substituting acrobatics for answers as she avoided questions and even her own words read back to her. This slick manoeuvring meant she couldn’t be pinned down but it left her looking slippier than a weasel in an olive oil factory.
No more so than when Davidson raised the matter of alleged messages sent by Sturgeon’s husband, and SNP chief executive, Peter Murrell that reportedly suggested ‘pressurising’ the police over Salmond.
First, Sturgeon appeared to blame the committee for the disclosure, then she ducked behind the police investigation, then pivoted to the ‘outrageous’ fact that she had still not been called to give evidence. She wanted to be scrutinised, you see.
‘She’ being the operative pronoun. The First Minister declared: ‘Call the people who the messages are purported to come from and ask them the questions; call me and I will answer for myself.’
Forget two metres, she was putting two miles between herself and Mr Sturgeon. Suffice to say the conversation across the Bute House breakfast table this morning will have been a little more terse than ‘who put toast crumbs in the Flora?’.
Davidson accused the SNP of a ‘shabby abuse of power’, which is mild for a government beginning to look dodgier than a day-old prawn bhuna.
Jackie Baillie, a one-woman airborne division, Zoomed in and opened fire: ‘As a member of the committee that is considering the handling of harassment complaints, I say to the First Minister that the SNP government is being disrespectful to the committee and, by extension, to the parliament.’
Direct strike. No sooner had the target been engaged than she deployed another sortie: ’Contrary to her briefing, the information provided at this point has been partial, witnesses have come before the committee with surprising memory difficulties and there is a complete refusal to hand over the legal advice for the judicial review.’
The presiding officer called time, no small mercy for the First Minister, who retreated back to the bunker. This is war and she’s on the back foot.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: firstname.lastname@example.org.