First minister's questions

Alex Salmond looked, momentarily, puzzled. Which was not in keeping with his overall mood which was one of absolute certainty in the face of opposition questions.

So what had discomfited the FM? The forecasts for North Sea oil revenue? No, those were apparently fine - despite the concerns disclosed in John Swinney's leaked Cabinet paper.

Was it then "the challenging context" derived from "the forward projections of the likely overall fiscal envelope", to quote Mr Swinney?

Nope. All governments were facing challenges in the current climate: Scotland, we were assured, was better placed than most to counteract these.

Pensions, then? Mr Swinney's paper had disclosed that there was to be work on the affordability of state provision. Again, no.

That work has been completed inasmuch as it involved the Fiscal Commission working group. The deputy first minister is now leading efforts to draw up a comprehensive policy covering welfare under independence. That should emerge ere long.

But, as a precursor, Mr Salmond insisted that Scotland was relatively wealthy, with oil, and more than capable of protecting social welfare provision, including pensions.

So, if not all those matters, what caused the first minister's face to crease into a quizzical frown? Well, it was when Johann Lamont started talking rodent.

The Labour leader looked directly at the FM and averred: "I ask him a straight question and he says: 'Look, there's a squirrel!'"

I think she was suggesting, albeit obliquely, that Mr Salmond, on occasion, might seek to divert debate, rather than to confront challenges directly.

It is, I suppose, a version of the political tactic recently disclosed by Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London.

An Australian chum of his apparently refers to the need, from time to time, to "throw a dead cat on the table".

Doubletalk claim

Why? Well, just you try maintaining a serious discussion, let alone a calm face, in the presence of a recently arrived, but palpably deceased, feline.

Instead of pursuing the topic in question, everyone - in Australia, that is - will proclaim: "Jeez, there's a dead cat on the table!".

In Scotland, presumably, the rodent in question would be red.

Anyway, Mr Salmond looked puzzled as if he hadn't heard properly - or couldn't quite believe what he had heard.

Nicola Sturgeon whispered an explanation - which contrasted with the loudly voiced support she offered throughout Mr Salmond's bravura performance.

Team Salmond had been worried in advance. They were relatively relieved - in these troubled times, everything is relative - in the aftermath.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption No squirrels were thought to have been seen in the Holyrood chamber

For one thing, they reckoned Johann Lamont slipped up by referring at the outset to her own speech in which she spoke of the spending challenges which will confront Scotland - and the consequent need to make choices.

This, they reckon, allowed the SNP benches - and the FM - to turn defence into attack, to revisit Labour's "Cuts Commission", as they bill their opponents' policy review.

But Ms Lamont is personally thirled to the concept of spending prioritisation, rather than unquestioning universality - and saw this as an opportunity to argue that her stated approach, derided by the SNP, tallied with the seeming private views of the finance secretary.

Both Ruth Davidson of the Tories and Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats weighed in, accusing the FM and his colleagues of doubletalk.

Mr Salmond shed the calm demeanour of recent weeks in favour of vigorous, robust attack.

His argument? That Mr Swinney and others had always highlighted the challenging financial environment: in every budget statement and elsewhere.

That this was driven by Westminster cuts. That the Swinney paper projected an eventual return to spending growth.

Further, that the oil picture had completely changed as a result of record investment in the past year, projecting enhanced revenues to be recouped around 2017 either by the Treasury or by an independent Scotland.

His opponents still seemed unconvinced. They spied squirrel.