The £500 NHS bonus is dubious policy but great politics, so when Richard Leonard tried to question the former he fell victim to the latter. The Scottish Labour leader isn’t against the payment; he just wondered why other frontline workers weren’t getting a tidy sum in their Christmas stocking.
He told Nicola Sturgeon: ‘£500 is a welcome gesture for those key workers on the frontline in health and social care, but for those key workers who have been working on the frontline of other parts of the public sector, and for those in the private sector like shop workers, it will be of little comfort.’
He was speaking not long after the announcement Debenhams could soon be ringing up its last sale.
Sturgeon found the question cynical. ‘It’s only a matter of weeks, if my memory is serving me correctly, that Richard Leonard at First Minister’s Questions challenged me to do more to say thank you to NHS and care workers, but as soon as we do he decides that is not enough and he’s going to ask for something else.’
It’s almost as if the leader of an opposition party was engaging in opposition. The scoundrel.
A braver opposition politician — certainly braver than Ruth Davidson, who went on school holiday uncertainty — would have pointed out that, while low-paid porters, cleaners and nurses more than merit £500 a pop, handing half a grand to consultants on six-figure salaries is hardly the most progressive use of taxpayers’ money.
In fairness to Davidson, the school holiday arrangements look about as well-planned as anything John Swinney’s had a hand in.
She reckons key workers could even face a ‘childcare crisis’. At least they have some certainty: they know where their £500 will be going.
At risk of inadvertently founding a Mike Rumbles fan club, the closest thing Holyrood has to a libertarian MSP made a welcome nuisance of himself once again. Returning to a favourite subject, he needled Sturgeon on the failure to give parliament a vote in advance of introducing or changing lockdown restrictions.
‘I will contrast that with what is happening at Westminster right at this moment,’ he prodded, ‘where MPs are debating and voting on major changes in their regulations before they come into effect.’
Accusing her of being less democratic than Westminster poked the bear, as Rumbles had intended. Sturgeon reminded him: ‘If my memory serves me correctly, the last time that we put areas into level 4, parliament did vote before the changes took effect.’
Rumbles took it to the umpire. Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh always looks mildly terrified when a member calls out ‘ point of order’, like a teacher who has just made it through his first sex education talk and is silently praying no hands shoot up with further questions.
‘I would hate to think the First Minister had inadvertently misled parliament,’ Rumbles ventured, with the sincerity of a Siamese circling a fishbowl, but could the Presiding Officer clarify if there had been a binding vote ahead of the tier 4 changes?
‘It is the case that we had a vote on a motion that was non-binding,’ Macintosh wearily confirmed, ‘and I specifically said that it was not a vote on the regulations.’
His voice is so joyless these days, and he was hardly an S Club 7 backing singer to begin with. The parliament has broken him, or rather his powerlessness to fix a broken parliament.
‘I have no objection to parliament being involved up front and as early as possible,’ Sturgeon told Rumbles, ‘as long as that does not hinder any of us in doing what is necessary.’
Not long ago, a sentence like that would have rung enough alarm bells to evacuate the building. Yesterday, it barely raised an eyebrow.
Mike Rumbles might be thoroughly out of touch with public opinion – the technical term is ‘Liberal Democrat’ – but when a First Minister has taken to reigning instead of governing, you need someone to remind her the crown is in her head, not on it.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: firstname.lastname@example.org.