In most weeks at Holyrood, First Minister’s Questions is the main event – the chance for the public to see the leaders of the opposition parties taking the First Minister to task on the issues of the day. However, this week FMQs was overshadowed by the launch of the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government (see what we made of it here) earlier in the week. Even so, it was still the first FMQs back after the long, languid summer recess and the leaders, and the other MSPs who asked questions, were obviously keen to be on form.
Before the usual question and answer session began, something was different. Gone were the dreary “diary questions” about Nicola Sturgeon’s schedule or when she would next meet with whomever; instead, in the name of allowing more time for backbencher’s questions, Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, Scottish Labour’s interim boss, Alex Rowley, and Patrick Harvie of the Scottish Greens all went straight into their questioning. The words on the order paper read, rather tersely, “Questions to be taking in Chamber”.
In terms of political theatre, Ruth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon are always well-matched opponents and today was no different. Davidson began laying into the SNP’s proposed Parliament-wide discussion on income tax that had been outlined in the Programme for Government. The Tory leader ridiculed the proposals and warned Scots earning over £43,000 per year that she believed the First Minister was “coming for their paycheck.” In response, an equally robust Nicola Sturgeon criticised what she saw as inconsistency in the Conservatives’ position, accusing them of wanting to increase government spending while offering “tax cuts for the richest”, which, in her view means that “the Tories are increasingly not a credible party”. If anyone had thought that either leader had missed a step over the summer recess, that thought was soon dismissed by the performance of two of Scotland’s most influential politicians.
There was a marked change in tone from the First Minister when Labour’s Alex Rowley began his line of questioning. Adjusting her body language so as to direct her answers to Mr Rowley directly, rather than to the Presiding Officer as she had done while answering Ms Davidson, the First Minister seemed to try to make common ground with the interim Labour leader on the issue of mental health care provision in schools and other areas of education policy. Amid answers that were collegiate, bordering on friendly, the First Minister even found time to compliment Alex Rowley as a “very considered and fair politician” – before going on to disagree with him in his depiction of the work of the Scottish government on rejected referrals and other issues.
Constituency questions from Lothians Tory, Gordon Lindhurst, and SNP MSP for Edinburgh North and Leith, Ben Macpherson, covering motorcycle offences and the unlawful retention of children’s remains – both eliciting answers that seemed to be well received by the Chamber. Green leader, Patrick Harvie, then rounded out the first part of the FMQs with a question about the mitigation of the UK Government’s cap on benefit payments which provided the FM with a rare chance to attack her Conservative ideological opponents with the kind of aplomb that comes with being unopposed in a line of questioning.
While there was much interest in the questions that followed, the main takeaway moment in this first FMQs of the new session occurred, not through one of the participants but through the Presiding Officer, Ken Macintosh. The Presiding Officer intervenes following the First Minister’s response to Patrick Harvie to inform the Chamber that an entire 33 minutes had passed and there had been no backbenchers’ questions. It was clear, both from similar remarks Mr Macintosh made at the start and end of FMQs, that he found this unacceptable. Perhaps even more so owing to this being the first session that the diary questions had been disposed of in order to free up some time for exactly those questions lost to, in the PO’s own words, questions which were “too lengthy” and answers which were “too long”.
If questions are to be asked following this iteration of FMQs then they are more likely to be about procedure than they are to be about policy. Does the continued running over of First Minister’s Questions mean that the decision to abandon diary questions was ineffective? Does the Chamber, or certainly those playing the lead roles in FMQs, require more strict monitoring? Will the new way of doing things be more effective once it has had a chance to bed in properly? We’re only at the start of this Parliament – by the end of it, we might know the answer… if we don’t run out of time.