First minister's questions: Getting the last word

If you are ever tempted to feel sorry for those who govern us, pursued as they are by parliamentary questions both pointed and pointless, then think again.

They have considerable advantages.

I recall the former Scottish secretary Michael Forsyth declaring that, when he faced parliamentary questions, he was "all alone" - apart from, as he noted, the umpteen thousand civil servants and advisers who were potentially available to help him prepare.

But, aside from that, do our political masters have to rely solely upon their innate intellect, sagacity and wit which, needless to say, they all cart into the chamber in buckets?

They do not. They have one big advantage. They get the last word. And today at Holyrood Alex Salmond deployed that to rather significant effect.

There he stood, under interrogation from Labour's Jackie Baillie.

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Image caption Offgem wants to investigate the major energy companies

She was standing in for her party leader, Johann Lamont, who was attending Tony Benn's funeral in London. Mostly, Ms Baillie sounded confident and assured, as befits one of her experience and talent.

The subject was energy prices. Now that SSE had frozen bills, now that the regulator Ofgem has announced an inquiry into competition in the sector, would Mr Salmond concede that Labour had been right (in announcing a wider planned freeze) and he had been wrong?

Would he, in short, say sorry? The first minister instantly abased himself, apologised profusely, wept slightly and surrendered to the mercy of the chamber.

How could they ever forgive him?

OK, fast rewind. He, of course, did nothing of the sort, reminding MSPs instead that his deputy had promised to cut bills by £70 by removing the obligation upon energy companies to pay for energy saving schemes, funding that directly instead.

Reasonable rammy

Ms Baillie said that was subsidising the companies - and suggested Mr Salmond was a constant friend of big business, rather than the workers.

Mr Salmond, egged on by an indignant Nicola Sturgeon, said the plan involved cutting household bills.

So far, so familiar. Indeed Ms Baillie even adopted the mantra of Ms Lamont in suggesting that Mr Salmond refused to answer straight questions.

There was a reasonable rammy over Ms Baillie's suggestion that the FM was standing "shoulder to shoulder" with David Cameron over the issue of energy bills.

Sustained guffaw

As nationalist members jeered loudly at this, Mr Salmond retorted that Labour MPs had walked "shoulder to shoulder" into the Commons division lobby to back a welfare cap - and that the two parties were "hand in glove" in Better Together.

Which brought us to the final word. Ms Baillie had exhausted her allotted questions. Up popped Mr Salmond to declare that he had been scanning the website of Argyll and Bute Conservatives. (That, and the Broons, form his nightly reading material.)

Apparently, there had been a lunch in Dunoon under the auspices of said Conservative association. Mr Salmond enumerated the delights. "Lunch with tea or coffee. £10. Speaker, Jackie Baillie MSP."

All perfectly reasonable, no doubt.

A brief trip down the Clyde to bolster the Better Together cause.

But it was enough to set the Nationalist benches in a roar. A sustained guffaw, replete with jabbing fingers.

Smiling benignly, Mr Salmond subsided; his work, for the moment, done.