The political zoo

Panda Image copyright PA
Image caption The party leaders were not the only big beasts making headlines at FMQs

Perhaps it was the electoral cycle (that Aberdeen by-election), perhaps it was the merciless sun, more Sahara than Saughton. But there was a distinct sense of the surreal during questions to the First Minister today.

Not throughout, you understand. The surreal atmosphere was decidedly dispelled when the Tory leader Ruth Davidson rose to challenge the First Minister, once again, to call for a public inquiry into the tragic issue of the disposal of babies' ashes.

She pursued her case, gently and seriously, reflecting parental pain and anxiety. In response, equally gently, equally seriously, Alex Salmond argued that it would be better to allow two existing inquiries to proceed, learning lessons thoroughly and speedily.

Image copyright PA
Image caption John Swinney waved away an accusation of having been exiled

No, the sense of detachment arose primarily during exchanges between Labour's Johann Lamont and the FM.

Ms Lamont wanted to talk about independence - or rather she wanted to talk the First Minister into talking about independence (which, she felt, he had neglected of late, especially in Aberdeen). And so she duly did.

Alex Salmond wanted to talk about welfare benefit changes - and his argument that Labour will now be aping the Tories, following Ed Miliband's speech today. And so he duly did.

With evident contentment on either side, each then proceeded to pursue these disparate courses of argument for a prolonged period. Each elicited ecstatic applause from their supporters, the Holyrood equivalent of the clapometer.

'Unwanted advances'

On the day, there were few signs of a novel narrative in Ms Lamont's approach - other than the argument that the case for independence was less than satisfactory.

There was, however, the Panda paradigm. Mr Salmond recently visited the non-breeding pair at Edinburgh Zoo. Perhaps to remind them that saying No was frowned upon in this pre-referendum era - or perhaps to deliver the latest stern leaflet from the Health Tsar about the perils of a bamboo diet.

Ms Lamont averred that her sympathy lay with Sweetie, the female. Scotland, she said, knew what it was like "to reject the unwanted advances of a big beast with only one thing on his mind".

Did she really say that? OMG, as I believe soon to be enfranchised younger people exclaim.

And she wasn't done. Mr Salmond, she said, should take advice from Sunshine, the male, as to how to deal with rejection.

Threaded through this bear-faced tale of love and despair were competing jibes about the economy. Mr Salmond was "to the right of George Osborne" - because he wanted to cut corporation tax below the UK level.

And apparently John Swinney had been "exiled" because of the leaked Cabinet document in which he spelled out the financial challenges which might arise post independence.

And to which gulag had he been despatched? To the seat on the front bench, next to the First Minister.

Assembling his features into mock indignation, Mr Swinney waved vigorously in the direction of the Labour leader - like a child at the zoo trying to tempt Sweetie out of her cave to greet the sunshine (if not Sunshine).

Mr Salmond then effected a formal introduction between Mr Swinney and Ms Lamont. And so the long day wore on until it was time to dress for Pongo's party. (Author: PG Wodehouse. Participant: Bertram Wilberforce Wooster.)

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