Hostile witness

It was Ruth Davidson at her exacting best.

Called for questions after Nicola Sturgeon’s latest Covid-19 statement, the obvious subject was the five-day lockdown grace period the First Minister had just announced for Christmas. The Tory group leader screeched the brakes and took proceedings in a prosecutorial direction.

As the SNP government continues to stonewall parliament on what legal advice it had about harassment allegations against Alex Salmond, Davidson turned First Minister’s Questions into a cross-examination with the First Minister in the witness box. The result was an interrogation more forensic than a CSI/Quincy double bill.

Like a good advocate, Davidson carefully laid out her terms. When she set up the Salmond inquiry, Sturgeon had promised to ‘provide whatever material’ it requested. Two parliamentary defeats later, she still refuses to disclose her taxpayer-funded legal advice and Scottish Government officials have been blocked from giving evidence.

‘The simple question is,’ Davidson concluded, ‘why has the First Minister broken her promise?’

‘That is not the case,’ the witness baulked. ‘The Scottish Government is co-operating and will continue to cooperate with the inquiry.’ She wasn’t undermining the Ministerial Code but acting in accordance with it.

If you’ve ever watched an accomplished lawyer at work, sometimes they try to reassure a witness into opening up and sometimes they pry at them with a crowbar. Davidson took the crowbar approach: ‘The blunt fact is that the only conceivable reason that she is breaking her promise is that she has something to hide.’

The she carried a faint toll of calculated contempt. In the Official Report, released by the Scottish Parliament later on Thursday afternoon, it had been replaced with the more polite First Minister.

For her own part, the First Minister’s gaze fell and her expression with it. When it came back up again, her complexion was a shade or two lighter and her voice softer than usual. Every little tic was its own study in discomfort.

‘Let us try the question differently,’ Davidson pried the crowbar a little more. ‘I will say what the legal advice contained and the First Minister can tell me whether I am wrong.’ She proceeded to surmise that ministers had been advised of their blunders and that they were for it in court, yet they had pressed ahead while ‘utterly failing the women who came forward’.

‘Can the First Minister tell the public which part of that I got wrong?’ she begged.

‘Were I to go into detail, I would stand here right now and breach the Ministerial Code,’ the witness recited bloodlessly. ‘Perhaps Ruth Davidson wants that to be the case, but I will not do that.’ The tone was flat, and in its own way just as lawyerly, but the tell-tale hands flew up and out, as though trying to spread as much blame as far as possible.

Her tormentor was not finished. ‘The SNP never tire of lecturing anyone who will listen about the will of parliament and how it should be respected,’ Davidson rebuked, ‘except when it does not suit their purpose’.

First ministerial eyes rose, then fell again; the mouth narrowed slightly; fingers strummed on upper arm, impatiently.

Now came the Tory’s closing flourish, thumping down key words like a palm thwacked on a desk for emphasis. ‘During this affair, the First Minister has conveniently forgotten key information such as dates [slap], meetings [crack] and conversations [whap]. Has she not forgotten something far more fundamental, too?’

‘The Government is acting in line with the ministerial code,’ came the cold, defeated reply.

The impromptu courtroom drama overshadowed the festive lockdown measures that had started the session 15 minutes (though it felt like hours) ago. The gist is, as Alan Rickman camply roared in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, ‘call off Christmas!’

No more than eight people across three households for five days. No changing bubbles. No meeting other bubbles. No going shopping with your bubble. And if you hark any herald angels singing, please report the matter to Police Scotland.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

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