Rumpole of the Baillie shines in FMQs courtroom drama

Jackie Baillie, the Helensburgh Hitwoman, takes out her targets cleanly. Dumbarton’s answer to Liam Neeson, she has a very particular set of skills and occasionally uses them on someone other than the Labour Left.

Yesterday, it was Nicola Sturgeon and whether she contravened ministerial rules, a matter under consideration by Irish QC James Hamilton. 

‘If the First Minister is found to have breached the ministerial code, will she resign?’ enquired Baillie, who is a member of the separate Holyrood inquiry. 

‘That is the Jackie Baillie who is not prejudging the outcome of the process,’ Sturgeon sulked. When Hamilton reports, she said, ’people can ask me that question and I will set out what I intend to do’. 

Prosecutor Baillie warned the accused that she ‘cannot simply ignore the ministerial code’ and reminded her that though she ‘claimed to have forgotten’ about a ‘fleeting’ chat with a former Salmond aide, ‘the meeting was pre-arranged for the specific purpose of discussing the complaints that were made against Alex Salmond’.

The Labour MSP quoted Paragraph 1.3(c) of the code with the theatrics of a canny QC closing in on a dubious witness. Rumpole of the Baillie repeated her interrogative: ‘I ask again: if the First Minister is found to have breached the ministerial code, will she resign?’

‘I do not believe that I did breach the ministerial code,’ Sturgeon protested, ‘so I will not engage with that hypothetical question.’ She affected an air of cool assurance but it was evident she was not enjoying this. 

Baillie suggested She Who Must Not Be Questioned ought to be under the microscope for more than the narrow terms of the Hamilton inquiry, underscoring the rule that ministers must pay heed to legal advice. 

Once more unto the breach: ’I ask again: if the First Minister is found to have breached the ministerial code, will she resign?’

‘I think that Jackie Baillie should decide whether she is really open-minded, objective and impartial on the matter or whether she has prejudged the issue,’ Sturgeon smeared, adding in self-pity: ‘I am entitled to due process and I do not need lectures on democracy from Jackie Baillie.’

Baillie resumed her seat having recorded the strongest Labour performance at FMQs in some time. Since 2017 to be exact.

Now, a cynic would say this is all academic, because the Hamilton inquiry is not going to find against Sturgeon. No politician volunteers for a probe likely to conclude that they’re a rotter. Even so, her integrity is under scrutiny like never before. 

Keith Brown, who became SNP deputy leader three years ago and hasn’t been heard from since, popped up with a dig at the UK Government’s Union Unit posing as a question.

This had not a jot to do with the responsibilities of the Scottish Government but it was nodded through by Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh, who seems to think Ultra Vires is an Eighties synth-pop band fronted by Midge Ure. 

‘If the Scottish Government had an independence unit in such a way, there would be howls of protest from the Conservatives,’ Sturgeon harrumphed. 

If the Scottish Government did anything other than agitate for independence, most Conservatives would need their jaws mechanically hoisted from the floor. 

Maureen Watt haltingly read a question on dualling the A9 clearly written down for her, even referring to the First Minister by the shorthand ‘FM’. A consistently hopeless minister, Watt has settled in well to her backbench role as I Can’t Believe It’s Not James Dornan. If you replaced her with a low-maintenance houseplant, the quality of debate would actually go up. 

None of the inquiries is likely to topple Sturgeon, something for which we should be grateful. For all her faults, it could be so much worse. Just look behind her. 


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol]

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