One of the key lessons of communications strategy is that when things get tough, go back to the top line. Whether that line is, “it’s the economy, stupid”, “education, education, education”, or “make America great again”, it’s been shown that the importance of drawing every thread and possible question back to the top line works in most difficult situations. This tactic was on show today at First Minister’s Questions, which took place the day after Finance Secretary Derek Mackay delivered his draft budget to the chamber.
The line in question, which came in the form of a challenge from the First Minister to almost everyone who asked her a question that had any connection to the draft budget, was to show her where in her government’s spending plans money could be taken from in order to fund additional spending in other areas.
It was a simple tactic and it was one which worked on this occasion.
During her typically animated exchange with acting Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw, in which Ruth Davidson’s deputy called on Nicola Sturgeon to give credit to the UK Government for a tax cut for lower earners and warned that she was in danger of creating a brain drain of higher earners, the First Minister returned to her line and asked the Eastwood MSP and his colleagues on the Tory benches to point out where the extra cash was to be taken from. Carlaw’s response was to tell Ms Sturgeon that he was “there to ask questions” not to answer them – drawing a positive response from opposition MSPs and groans from the SNP.
Sturgeon’s “show me the money” approach also came in handy when Labour leader Richard Leonard took to his feet. Mr Leonard’s attempts to take the FM to task over the so-called “two child cap” on welfare were met with a barbed invitation from Ms Sturgeon to meet her to discuss where in the budget the money required to mitigate the policy would come from and which other area of the Scottish budget would see its allocation of funds cut. The First Minister’s rinse and repeat approach with her top line appeared to work, catching Mr Leonard in a rhetorical trap in which he appeared to suggest that the role of Holyrood was to mitigate policies at a U.K. level – to a hostile response from the centre of the chamber.
In total, aside from the constituency questions (save for a question from Labour MSP Jackie Baillie which got the “show me the money” treatment) the First Minister leant heavily on her top line to rebuff the criticisms aimed at her Finance Secretary. In all fairness, she can probably go into the Christmas break with some sense of victory in this regard. Her rigid adherence to a tried and tested method of arguing against her critics seemed to work in the top line heavy environment of her weekly FMQs sparring session.
However, in the coming weeks, she and Mr Mackay will face intense scrutiny from all sides which will, if their questioners do their jobs correctly, require a more nuanced and detailed set of responses than could feasibly be issued during a 45-minute questioning session. The draft budget may have survived this first round but the coming weeks we will see it really put to the test in terms of how it delivers on key talking points like the NHS, schools, and the Scottish Parliament’s suite of welfare powers. When this happens, and it will, Nicola Sturgeon and Derek Mackay will need to do more than effectively just ask “…but what would you do?”