Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Salmond rattled

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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Danny Phillips

is an independent writer and researcher for campaigning organisations in Scotland. He was special adviser to first minister Jack McConnell 2003-2007


  • I think this is a really strange article. I would readily agree that Johann Lamont hasn’t been as rattled as Iain Gray was. She’s managed to avoid total failure. Avoiding being rattled yourself is not the same as rattling your opponent, though.

    Is this a strategy piece to try and create debate on this or something? I can only assume that the press are maybe getting a bit bored of watching the equivalent of Man City v Chester-le-street town for too long and fancy creating a bit of fake atmosphere. The press probably wouldn’t mind seeing someone give him a bit of a fight for a change.

  • To be honest, I really admired the idea of Lamont bringing a constitutent into Parliament. It’s a good showing for democracy. I do feel though that it was a wee bit “oldest trick in the book” kind of stuff. It smacked of a bit of desperation that in order to make a point she used individual cases. If the point was so substantive I doubt she would’ve needed to personify the debate in such a way. Salmond couldn’t do anything but apologise to the old dear (and I think they left happy).

    It probably alignes well with Lamont’s wee simple unimpressed working wummin theme that she’s trying to develop but I’m not sure it’s the tactics of a statesperson first minister in waiting type person. If Lamont gets to 2014 I will be impressed.

  • Insightful and first class analysis by Danny Phillips; the SNP will be splapping their desks awfully hard when they look into this mirror mirror on the wall – indeed Mike Russell will guffaw louder than Mons Meg going off at 1pm when he clocks it, the arch weasel himself! SNP to the keyboards, get leaving posts on progress online, I can hear the FM shout already …

  • I think this is a bit of a strange article too. The central point is that FMQs is no longer the walk over it has been for what,coming up for 5 years? Good, that’s a good thing. But stretching that to implying some sort of coherent Labour response is more than a stretch too far. And Danny, if you don’t think the Cabinet Secretary team are weasels……then why use that language? It doesn’t cut it to use the word and then say you don’t mean it.

  • I’m pleasantly surprised and rather enjoying Lamont’s progress. She also seem to have caught the imagination of floating scottish female voters in a way that Joan McAlpine would give her yellowing teeth for

  • It is a source of some wonder and amusement that the more the old parties plummet in the public regard the more they are to be found congratulating themselves on what a wonderful job they’re doing. This article might have been written as a companion piece to something that appeared in ToryHoose recently. A veritable paean of praise lavished on the serially incompetent Ruth Davidson based on a version of her performance at FMQs so totally at odds with the reality as to call into question the mental well-being of the author.

    For all these supposed “palpable hits” on Alex Salmond, he remains curiously unscathed. Don’t believe me? Look at the approval ratings.

    And, in any case, what kind of puerile, petty politics is it that measures success, not in terms of advancing policies for the benefit of the people of Scotland, but in causing real or imagined embarrassment to the First Minister.

  • Johann is doing the job we all expected her to do holding the Nationalist Government to task for there failures, the spin and down right Lies they tell both inside and outside the Chamber.

    I do understand that Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon are yet to apologise for saying that Jackie Baillie was scare mongering.

    I wont hold my breathe on either of these egotistical characters apologising.

  • The one thing the responses here prove is that there is no no-go areas for the Cybernats. It is certainly the case that so far Salmond is still riding high in the polls, but it is never going to be bright confident morning again, is it?

  • What do you mean? I’m just writing what I think.

    I’m not a wee partisan sado that can’t see the wood for the trees. I’m not from any party but feel at home more to the left than right although I’m beginning to wonder if this is possible when people seem more interested in spin than working together.

    I can readily see that I don’t agree with everything Alex Salmond says but that’s not the point of this piece or my reply. It’s the fact that whilst Johann Lamont hasn’t been as awful as Iain Grey she hasn’t rattled Salmond either. I genuinely don’t know how anybody can claim she has but that’s opinion.

  • Wow. I’m simply flabbergasted at the thought of Johann Lamont ‘doing a good job’, ‘she has the measure of him’, he’s rattled now’ etc etc. Anybody who watches FMQ would quickly come to the conclusion that Lamont is well and truely out of her depth. Instead of taking her party forward working together with SNP with progress such as min price on alcohol she digs her heels in for the sake of being negative while her Leader in westminster is backing the torys great idea to do exactly that. Scottish Labour…….you’ve got to laugh.

  • Ditto the above. JL is so out of her depth its hard to understand how she became Labour leader in Scotland. There must be either a shortage of talent on the Labour benches or a lack of desire to stand for the leaders position and get politically humiliated and hammered week in week out by Salmond.

    Maybe its all part of the Labour master plan for independence by stealth. Be so dire for so long, that the population votes yes, and the left can rebuild with a clear conscience in 2015…..

    Hmmm…not the worst idea ever….

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