Nicola Sturgeon faced opposition leaders at First Minister’s Questions on March 11, 2021. This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of proceedings.
Something majestic happens whenever the Scottish Government releases more of its Alex Salmond legal advice. Not the SNP being mildly accountable to parliament, though that’s always a Kodak moment. No, it’s the fact Ruth Davidson gets to describe the bundle of papers as a ‘tranche’.
She has a thing for that word. On Wednesday, she described ‘tranches of documents having been dragged from John Swinney’ and yesterday she spoke of the Deputy First Minister forking over ‘another tranche of legal advice’. The Tory leader pronounces it ’trohnsh’, as though it were a new scent from Paris. Tranche: Eau de Cover-up.
The fragrance hanging over the SNP government is of a whiffier nature. It positively pongs of dodgy. Davidson twice tried to pry out of Sturgeon how much taxpayers’ money was sploshed on the Salmond legal case after the government’s QC had declared the game a bogey. The best she got was: ‘I can look into whether we can provide that.’
‘The point I think Ruth Davidson is making for me is that she is quoting from the legal advice that has been published,’ Sturgeon ventured. This had been done ‘in an unprecedented fashion’. That’s one way of putting it.
Of course, this was the legal advice her government had partly held back, meaning she couldn’t be questioned about it under oath. She was like an arsonist berating the firefighters for getting everything soaked when there wasn’t even a fire anymore.
‘I asked the First Minister a very specific question,’ Davidson snorted. ‘Whatever that was, it was not an answer.’
Sturgeon urged the opposition to stop ‘chasing phantoms’.
If SNP scandals were mere spectres, Ghostbusters would have a Scottish franchise by now. Though it’s probably best not to take on a government whose answer to the question ‘Who you gonna call?’ is ‘the Crown Office’.
For those who keep note of such things, we are now in the ‘learning lessons’ stage of the Salmond scandal.
‘I take very seriously the obligation on me and my government to learn lessons,’ Sturgeon assured Davidson. And: ‘I want to learn lessons.’
This ought to raise eyebrows. Governments only talk like this once they know they’re in the clear. For some reason, Sturgeon’s regime seems to think it’s home and dry, with just a spot of paperwork remaining in the form of various inquiry reports.
If you’re an opposition leader, there are a small number of paths to victory at FMQs. You can pounce with a fact or figure or personal story not yet on the news agenda and guarantee yourself coverage in every paper the next morning. Iain Gray was adept at this back in the day. He was on a hiding to nothing as Labour leader but he got more page leads than Woodward and Bernstein.
Alternatively, you can be funny. Willie Rennie has first dibs on this route, though Davidson occasionally sprints through it firing snark-grenades in all directions.
Anas Sarwar took the road least travelled: digging up an old statistic that, although everyone already knows it, becomes newly impactful in the current context.
The Labour leader questioned the First Minister on reports 7,000 Scots are living with undiagnosed cancer during the pandemic. Sturgeon accepted that ‘many people have suffered and even died because of the impact and consequences of what we have had to do to deal with Covid’.
Here came the drop.
‘Covid did not create this problem,’ Sarwar reminded her, ‘it has made a bad situation worse. This government has not met the 62-day cancer waiting time target since 2012 — nine years. Nicola Sturgeon has failed to meet that target for the entire time that she has been First Minister.’
Everyone knew it, but the stat still landed abruptly.
He pressed her to focus on the NHS — rather than ‘what divides us’ — ‘so we never again have to choose between treating a virus and treating cancer’.
The Labour faces behind him said it all: this was the leader they’d been looking for.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.