As soon as First Minister’s Questions began this week it became apparent that lessons had been learned. The questions were punchier and the First Minister’s answers were correspondingly more succinct than last week. In general, the whole event felt more tight and disciplined than it had done before. Members from across the Chamber had clearly been listening intently to Presiding Officer, Ken Macintosh’s, sage advice from the previous week and were putting it into practice.
The opening clash between First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, usually a fairly balanced affair, was considerably more one-sided than usual. Ms Davidson initially appeared to have gained the upper hand with a pertinent question about teacher numbers. However, following Ms Sturgeon’s reply, the Tory boss appeared to waste her follow-up questions and grew increasingly frustrated at being unable to land a rhetorical blow on the SNP leader. Sturgeon seemed to have anticipated Davidson’s line of questioning and had a line and put down prepped for every argument. In fact, a new political internet meme may have been born after the First Minister accused Ruth Davidson of “angry waffling”, much to the bemusement of SNP MSPs and the Nationalist Twittersphere.
Having won the round against her first opponent, the FM returned to form and struck up a conciliatory tone with Scottish Labour interim leader, Alex Rowley, over the issue of the fire service and the conditions of fireman in particular. Mr Rowley, the latest addition to FMQs, seems to be somewhat of a divisive character with some criticising what they see as his lack of passion, while others find his style to possess a calmness and serenity as something that they wish to see more of in politics.
It was back to school when Scottish Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie took his turn to quiz Ms Sturgeon. Following an indirect opening question, Rennie outlined his belief that a second McCrone Report could provide the answer to Scotland’s schooling woes and challenged Nicola Sturgeon to agree with him. The FM responded by rejecting Mr Rennie’s demands and arguing that she, and her Government, was focused on improving Scottish education and that another McCrone Report would waste valuable time and resources. This is a point that will likely spur much debate in the coming weeks.
A slew of sensible questions followed after Richard Lochhead lobbed a soft-ball question to the FM over Brexit and its impact on devolution in Scotland. They included questions on sex offences committed by children against one another, Police Scotland, and an especially serious line of inquiry from Labour’s Daniel Johnston about combustible cladding on buildings. As seems to be formula, the middle-to-latter segment of FMQs was devoted to policy specifics rather than what could be dismissed as political posturing for advantage.
There is usually something interesting to take from every session of FMQs and, this time, it’s the context that matters most. With the questions posed about Brexit and the answers the First Minister gave to questions such as those on education, there was very little doubt, as if it were doubtable, that Ms Sturgeon holds the UK Government and the Conservative Party responsible for many issues that she sees in society. This is not new from the First Minister who makes a point of mentioning Brexit, the UK Government, as well as Tory policy more broadly, often and especially at FMQs.
However, one might ask exactly how this squares with the performance of Ian Blackford MP, the SNP’s Leader at Westminster, who chastised the Prime Minister, Theresa May, for bringing up the subject of the Scottish Government’s record during Prime Minister’s Questions this week? With the First Minister and her party keen to haul the Tories across the coals at Holyrood but her representatives becoming visibly irritated by any mention of their administration at Westminster, any reasonable observer could level accusations at Ms Sturgeon of, at best, cognitive dissonance or, at worst, hypocrisy within her party.
Perhaps some kind of explicit rule or convention could resolve this apparent double-standard between London and Edinburgh? If it were agreed that the business of one parliament were not to be discussed in the other then the situation would be consistent, if impractical. A more realistic solution would be to establish clearly that, since they exist in the same legislative framework, it is unavoidable that Holyrood will be discussed in Westminster and vice-versa and so therefore free discussion of either place in either place is preferable.
After all, this would only require a change to Ian Blackford’s script, and not the one that scored Nicola Sturgeon a win today – surely this would be wanted in SNP and Scottish Government circles?