Salmond is no longer enjoying First Minister’s Questions. Labour leader Johann Lamont has the measure of him. Even arch-nationalists are saying so.
Of course Salmond will win the odd week but my last article said Salmond ‘may not be rattled but he is certainly not as sure-footed as he was’.
Well he’s rattled now.
Salmond’s problem is his predictability. You know his answer before he even enters the chamber. It’s difficult to explain why someone so proud of his parliamentary reputation has not developed in the role. Maybe because most in the media have let him get away with stock-in-trade replies for years.
Whatever the accusation, Salmond’s response is to attack the messenger: declare SNP 2012 better than Labour 2007; compare his SNP government to any other part of the UK depending on which helpful fact a special adviser has googled; claim it would all be fixed if Scotland were independent; or protest that ‘it wasnae me – a big boy done it’ and ran away (blaming London, European law, local authorities, minority government, and even his own SNP spin doctors).
All answers come with a say-it-loud-enough-so-it-must-be-true delivery, a style many SNP spokespeople have inherited.
If none of the above work his last resort is to get his officials to issue a ‘Salmond sorry’ later in the day. (There have been a few)
If like me you watch FMQs most weeks, to be honest, you start to bore of Salmond. It’s the people around him who catch your interest
I am reminded of comedian Stewart Lee’s routine about BBC Top Gear’s Richard ‘the hamster’ Hammond – the little weasel kid at school who hangs around the school bullies always laughing at their jokes – the alpha male to Hammond’s weasel is Jeremy Clarkson.
Lee’s point is that watching weasel kid can tell you a lot about the bully.
TV camera angles mean for large parts of FMQs only one other MSP can be seen when the FM is talking. It’s the row behind him, one seat to the left. As it’s one of the few chances a run-of-the-mill MSP gets to be on live TV the seat is usually allocated for good behaviour. The MSP’s job is to nod as FM makes each point, to laugh at FM’s jokes, cheer approvingly as their man sits down and nod in agreement to a colleague.
Kenny Gibson’s regular appearance shows SNP spin doctors have faith in his aptitude.
Salmond’s frontbench ministerial team also do their weasel best, while deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon keeps some personal dignity and does great fake outrage. Finance minister John Swinney guffaws and slaps the desk, mostly at appropriate times. Education minister Mike Russell just guffaws louder than anyone in the building, doing so at any point, even at alpha male’s non-jokes (guess whose jacket is on the shoogliest peg).
Why do we know when Salmond is getting a bit of a kicking? Because half way through proceedings the team start to look a bit uncomfortable and their supporting role becomes forced. And because, at the next FMQs nodding dog is nodding uncontrollably, Swinney is slapping the desk just a bit too hard and Russell’s guffawing is unbearably loud.
Thursday 22 March 2012, was classic Salmond FMQs. Lamont sets up her question by asking Salmond why Audit Scotland, Royal College of Nursing, Unison and The Centre for Public Policy and the Regions claim Scotland’s health service is lagging behind England for resources. This elicits FM’s usual replies:
Getting to the nub of her question she asks why patients are going without blankets in Scotland’s NHS.
Salmond’s response is to loudly go through his stock answers. He attacks Labour health spokeswomen, Jackie Baillie MSP, claiming she is spreading a scare story which is totally untrue. He compares Scotland with Labour in Wales – Scotland is better. He trashes Labour’s record from six or so years ago. He has some stats showing things are better now than in 2006.
Is it arrogance or because he only has one gear that he cannot see the trap everyone else can see coming? Johann has invited real constituents to sit in the public gallery. These are real people who were left in a hospital bed without blankets by Scotland’s NHS.
‘Why does he not come and meet Mr Barr and Mrs McBeth in my office after question time to explain that we do not have a problem in the NHS?’ she asks.
Apart from the fact he is now rattling off confusing statistics and quotes, we are no longer listening as he blames the local health board. We know he is in trouble because the weasel kids start shuffling in their seats, drinking their glasses of water and staring at their desks. And even Russell gets that it’s probably best not to laugh.
What happens next? Within hours Salmond’s office is forced to apologise. Next week we can expect weaseling for Scotland
For the record I don’t really think they are actually weasels. It’s a metaphor. They are hard-working ministers serving our country. They would all love to be alpha male but have to play weasel kid to stand any chance of getting the top job. It’s all part of the theatre of the FMQs. Who can blame them?
Labour MSPs do the same for Johann. It’s just they seem to have more to nod and cheer about these days and it looks more genuine, less forced. I presume they are enjoying it. And who can blame them?
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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