FMQs: a stormy session before the summer recess

Nicola Sturgeon Image copyright PA
Image caption It was not the sunniest session of FMQs

Looking ever so slightly bemused, like a model pupil who has stumbled across a playground fight, Patrick Harvie of the Greens tried to lift the mood in Holyrood by wishing every single MSP "all the best for the summer".

Outside, the rain poured down, passing effortlessly from torrent to monsoon. The storm assaulted the Parliamentary windows with unyielding ferocity.

Still, despite that, on this last day of the session, our MSPs were in cheery mood, weren't they? Bidding each other a fond temporary farewell?

Chums, they were not.

Ruth Davidson - nearly - called the First Minister a liar. Nicola Sturgeon - almost - implied that the Tory leader was a charlatan. And so the long, last day wore on.

The opening exchanges again featured the question of payments to farmers under a European Union system.

You remember the EU? Transnational organisation? Headquartered in Brussels? Britain's about to leave? Yes, that's the one.

Anyway, these payments are processed for Scotland by the Scottish government. And the system has been less than utile. Indeed, it has been so ineffective that it has attracted some notably agricultural terms of abuse, mostly connected with fertiliser.

Last week at this time, Ms Davidson, she who leads the Tories, asked the First Minister - twice - whether her government had applied to the European Commission for an extension of the deadline by which the cash was due to be distributed.

Ms Sturgeon replied on each occasion that her government was pursuing contingency arrangements, without being more specific. It subsequently emerged, from journalistic endeavour, that an application for a potential extension had indeed been submitted.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Ruth Davidson has pursued the first minister over farm payments repeatedly

Ms Davidson was less than pleased - and said so. Cue uproar in the chamber, some of which was authentic.

Amid the noise, Ms Davidson stood silent upon a peak in Darien (I know, meaningless; I just admire Keats). She gave the chamber a steady, basilisk stare. Full of menace and exasperation.

Then she continued. Ministers, she said, were meant to give accurate and truthful answers. Did the FM think she had met that standard? (Translation: pants on fire.)

Did the First Minister buckle? Did she plead for mercy, blaming the weather and Brexit? What do you reckon? Yes, thought you might say that.

Ms Sturgeon said her reply last week had been precise and accurate. They were indeed examining contingency plans with the Commission. Those included, it transpired, an extension of the deadline.

Dual stratagems

Mayhap the FM recognised that this was not entirely the most open and comprehensive of responses. So she essayed a couple of other stratagems.

One, pragmatism. Farmers, she argued, did not want to hear about who said what, when. They wanted their dosh. The SG was exerting every sinew to get it to them - and had, in any case, previously offered covering loans.

Two, politics. Ms Davidson had, unaccountably, failed to mention the confidence and supply deal between Theresa May and the DUP, with its attendant £1bn transfer of cash to NI. Further, no doubt due to a lack of time, the Tory leader had neglected to refer to the row over demands for Scotland to get comparable lolly.

Nicola Sturgeon, ever helpful, decided to remedy these oversights. She advised the chamber to forget farm payments and concentrate on the ineffectiveness of the Tories at Westminster instead.

The FM then turned directly upon Ruth Davidson, who was recently appointed Honorary Colonel of her old regiment, 32 Signal - and was depicted in battle dress as a result. (At least, I think it is battle dress. My experience of uniform is limited to a happy spell in the Cubs.)

Summoning up every scintilla of sarcasm, Ms Sturgeon characterised Ms Davidson as "all mouth and no trousers, camouflage or otherwise."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Kezia Dugdale made an attempt of her own to rain on the first minister's parade

Rising in her turn, Kezia Dugdale for Labour looked momentarily discomfited by the venomous exchanges. But she rallied speedily to demand more moolah for Scotland's schools.

There followed a statistical war. Schools were being short-changed, said Ms Dugdale. No they were not, said Ms Sturgeon, citing the range of funds available.

The Labour leader expanded the exchange a little. Schools needed "cold, hard cash", not "Tory reforms". By which one presumes she means the notion of giving more power to head teachers, rather than councils.

Ms Sturgeon demurred.

Then it was on to Patrick Harvie's plaintive appeal to try a little tenderness, allied to an argument that more resources should be devoted to alleviating child poverty in Scotland. Ms Sturgeon gave the reply emollient.

Willie world

And finally Willie Rennie. He opened with his weekly topic, the problems afflicting the police. But he swiftly broadened his challenge into a bewildering array of complaints, designed to adduce a suggestion of governmental drift.

These included the farm payments row (already cited); the Fraser of Allander Institute report on Scotland's precarious economy; and finally the Scottish Cabinet reshuffle which, as he truthfully acknowledged, hadn't happened.

Ms Sturgeon rose slowly, seeming faintly bemused. Mr Rennie, she said, appeared to "live in a wee world of his own." (He does. It's called Fife.)

Perhaps, she mused, she should partake of a little of whatever the Lib Dem leader was on. To emphasise, dear reader, this was a further outburst of First Ministerial satire and sarcasm. Not, I feel certain, a prescription for a happy summer.

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