The wry banter before rampant battles

Nicola Sturgeon Image copyright Getty Images

This, Nicola Sturgeon informed the chamber, is a serious government with a serious job to do. Cue an outburst of solemn nodding.

Thankfully, this comment - at the conclusion of the first minister's speech - did not pre-empt the drollery and wit which customarily attends the appointment of new ministers.

To be clear, Ms Sturgeon added to the satirical tally with gusto, while wisely confining that element to her adlib remarks winding up the brief debate. She showed a decided talent, indeed, for improvised stand-up; constrained, faintly but perceptibly, by the dignity of office.

Perhaps I should explain this temporary transition of Holyrood from debating forum to Fringe venue. It is an unintended consequence of devolution's rules and regulations.

When wise and sensible folk were preparing for devolved self-government, they deemed it appropriate that new ministers should be subject to parliamentary fiat. It was thought this would lessen the power of the executive.

However, in practice, the only vote which counts is that appointing the first minister. Once that is done, MSPs are generally content to accept, all passion spent, that said FM is entitled to appoint a team of cabinet colleagues and junior ministers to get on with the business of governing.

Lead act

So steadily arose a custom surrounding the ratification of the new faces - and it is only the entirely new ones, not those with a new remit. It became an opportunity for wry banter, a prelude to the rampant battles to come.

The custom was, mostly, observed today. Although, understandably, the conflicts of the campaign burst through on occasion. For some, the pain is still too recent to indulge readily in light comedy.

For example, Labour's Kezia Dugdale was deftly droll on occasion. But, as she praised John Swinney and wished him well in his new role as education secretary, she could not resist adding that his task was made that much harder by the parsimony of the previous finance secretary. One Swinney, J.

To be quite fair to our elected tribunes, the humour was leavened with sporadic weighty matters. Issues like farm payments, local government, tax, the economy, health care were mentioned, indicators of conflict to come.

But, mostly, it was a chance for post-election humour. As ever, Jackson Carlaw of the Conservatives, was the lead act.

'Lustrous hair'

He stood up, surrounded by the impressive tally of new Conservative MSPs. Young, male and sharply suited, they resembled nothing so much as a football squad from an emerging European nation, alighting from the team coach at Hampden. Eager but a little unsure.

Encouraged by this strength in depth, Mr Carlaw essayed a running gag about competition between Humza Yousaf and Derek Mackay (Mr Mackay has made it to cabinet, Mr Yousaf remains a junior minister).

Their choice of opening day costume. Their "dark, lustrous hair" - implying that Mr Mackay's mop had a little assistance. OK, maybe you had to be there but it got laughs.

Then he turned to the women. He noted that Angela Constance remained in cabinet despite speculation that she would be granted more time to spend with "the world's second largest shoe collection".

Perhaps Mr Carlaw should have heeded the light, subterranean grumbling which attended that gag. But he was on a roll and not to be deterred.

At which point, he congratulated Roseanna Cunningham - "the grandmother of the parliament".

Those of you who are connoisseurs of Burns will recall the moment in Tam O'Shanter when the hero intervenes volubly in the devilish dance. The Bard notes: "In an instant, all was dark."

Buffalo protection

Today, at Holyrood, a comparable gloom enveloped Jackson Carlaw. It was equally instantaneous. Dark, it was, and icy.

Mr Carlaw spotted the climate change - and sought a remedy. That, he said, will cost me a bottle at least. Ms Cunningham could be seen declaring, grimly: "I'll be breaking it over your head."

But, that apart, the tone was convivial. John Finnie of the Greens wished all the ministers well "in serving their nation".

Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats invited the chamber to cast their thoughts back to sundry photo-calls during the campaign. He proposed "a new animal welfare bill to protect buffalo and pigs from politicians".

It fell to Nicola Sturgeon to draw the gig to a close. Jackson Carlaw, she speculated, might now require protection from the "wrath of Roseanna Cunningham". He could, she added, expect no support whatsoever from the office of first minister.

Turning to Derek Mackay, she embarked wryly upon a defence of his coiffure. On the question of tinting, she said: "I can say categorically... No, I can't mislead parliament."

OK, so Michael McIntyre's safe - but it wasn't bad on the spur of the moment. She added for good measure that her new cabinet colleague, Mr Mackay, had whispered a riposte to her during Mr Carlaw's speech.

To the effect that a few highlights in the hair were "better than the Tories who camouflaged their entire party" during the election campaign.

And there it is again, that combative note. They're back in the room. Normal service from next week.

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