When I gave up being a political adviser, I was not upset to see the back of first minister’s questions. Like its Westminster equivalent, prime minister’s questions, this weekly interrogation can make or break a party leader.
Having worked on both sides, first in government preparing answers, then in opposition coming up with questions, I would take the former job spec any Thursday of the month.
Being opposition leader at FMQs is a thankless task. You get three or four questions. You can string them out a bit. But they are still just questions. And by definition a question gives the first minister the last word.
FMQs do not dictate elections but they do matter. They are political litmus papers. They set the news tone for a weekend. They expose political strategies and are motivational events for backbenchers. Have a few bad weeks and you are deflecting questions about your leadership. Get a good run and you’re all on a roll.
FMQs aren’t generally suited to cross-party consensus, detailed arguments, and thoughtful responses. They tend to work on party divides, political lines and personal attacks.
Few could argue with Salmond’s own assessment that the format was ‘made for him’. It is clearly one of his strengths and he tends to have his own way at noon on a Thursday.
So when yet another leader steps up to take their chances, their backbenchers can only sit and hope.
Labour backbenchers were hopeful about Scottish Labour’s new leader, Johann Lamont. She is an effective parliamentarian and they thought she just might give as good as she gets.
So with the first term over and recess upon us, the question is: how’s she doing? The answer is actually pretty well.
Salmond is having a bad patch. His 1,000 days to independence is not going entirely to plan. Donald Trump, Chinese pandas, RBS and independent Scotland keeping the English pound have all got in a muddle. Five years in, and now with a full majority, blaming others all the time sounds hollow. And with Scotland’s most important political event in 300 years due in 970 days, in the middle of the worst recession for 50 years, spinning lines about how badly you are being treated by British broadcasters and London parties seems a tad self-indulgent.
But more than Salmond’s problems, to the delight of the Labour backbenches, Johann is good at it.
In her first outing she asked the FM about a particularly horrific child protection case. It was toe curling to see the FM getting briefed by his deputy who realised he had no idea what Lamont was asking about. Her recent question about a ‘Royal Bank of Scotland banker who enjoyed huge success but whose arrogance drove him to overreach himself and lead Scotland to disaster’ was a corker. Salmond probably knew it was coming but he still didn’t like it when she read out his chummy letter to Sir Fred Goodwin, ‘I would like to offer any assistance my office can provide. Good luck with the bid. Yours for Scotland, Alex’. In her final session before the recess she tackled him on Scotland’s biggest infrastructure contract going to a Chinese company. ‘Alex Salmond went to China and pulled off a master deal – the Chinese got an £800 million steel contract and we got two pandas’
She is getting the strategy right, but just as important is her manner. She looks confident. Her schoolteacher act of dealing with the naughty boy who keeps showing off is effective. She mocks him, which he hates. And attacks his record which makes him shout louder about Labour and London in a higher voice.
This first session has been a marker that she is not going to play his politics. As she tells him most weeks. This is ‘serious, not a game’. He may not be rattled but he is certainly not as sure footed as he was. And Lamont seems to have the measure of him.
Of course, it’s early days, but it’s been a long time since I have looked forward to my next instalment of FMQs.
Danny Phillips is an independent writer and researcher for campaigning organisations in Scotland. He was special adviser to first minister Jack McConnell 2003-2007
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