FMQs: Rolling out the red carpet for indyref2?

John Swinney is amused
Image caption John Swinney: a big fan of his boss's jokes

It was a deft aside - a decidedly witty riposte. Certainly, it amused John Swinney.

The deputy first minister laughed uproariously. He leaned back perilously in his chair. He slapped his thighs.

And the gag? OK, maybe not a Fringe winner but, hey, you had to be there. Atmosphere is all.

Nicola Sturgeon was at her favourite sport. Lampooning Jackson Carlaw. Why, she asked the interim Tory leader, had his party taken to generating election leaflets with a backbencher on display?

You've guessed the backbencher by now, of course. Yes, Ruth Davidson. She who stood down to spend more time with her family and less with Boris Johnson.

In but a scintilla of a second, Mr Carlaw's emotional response ranged from anguish to exasperation. However, he rallied equally swiftly, smiling with determination as he pursued his argument.

Labour, he said, had signalled its readiness to endorse indyref2. Actually, sundry folk around Jeremy Corbyn had said they didn't want another indy ballot, far less independence itself. Not a priority.

But they had also indicated that perhaps, maybe, when push came to shove, they wouldn't stand in the way of a further referendum after the passage of an unspecified period of time.

Image caption Ruth Davidson has already appeared on some election leaflets, despite no longer leading the Scottish Tories

That was more than enough for Mr Carlaw. According to him, the first minister was ready to roll out the red carpet personally at Downing Street, awaiting Mr Corbyn's soft tread.

The deal was all but done. The SNP would put Labour in Number 10. Labour would grant an independence referendum. All clear?

Not to Ms Sturgeon. As a prelude, she advised the chamber that she considered both Mr Corbyn and Mr Johnson to be "completely and utterly useless".

But, as per Animal Farm, might one political beast be more useless than the other when it came to political expediency?

Certainly, the SNP are intrinsically opposed to any pact or coalition with the Tories. One election aim for them is to oust Mr Johnson from Downing Street.

So does that mean they favour Jeremy Corbyn? Up to a point, Lord Copper. And rather a remote point at that.

Instead of choosing an inhabitant for Downing Street, Ms Sturgeon prefers to focus upon forging a new choice for Scotland. That of independence.

Westminster talks

Yes, but, does that mean a deal with Labour? Ms Sturgeon declines to say, declines to pursue that avenue - and her spokesperson maintained the same line at a Holyrood briefing.

It was acknowledged that the first minister held talks in Westminster with Mr Corbyn eight days ago.

But, it was emphasised, cross-party talks have been commonplace in these troubled times. This meeting had dealt with issues of the moment - Brexit strategy in the Commons and the (then) potential UK general election.

Equally, though, it suits the SNP narrative to sustain speculation about an independence referendum in a UK political context. It gives them a dog in this election race.

Image caption Richard Leonard has faced a barrage of questions from the wicked media about Labour's position

All a bit painful and distracting for Labour's Scottish leader, Richard Leonard. He wants to say no to indyref2. He wants off the subject. Snag for him is it keeps arising not through the wicked media, as he may surmise, but through remarks from Labour at Westminster, including members of the shadow cabinet.

Today, he wanted to ask Ms Sturgeon about pressure upon the NHS workforce, generating extra days off sick from stress. Perfectly salient and relevant topic, especially in the light of the recent warnings from Audit Scotland about the health budget.

Mr Leonard even managed to link it directly to this election (health being entirely devolved) by arguing that Jeremy Corbyn would rescue the Scottish NHS through providing extra UK cash, some £70bn over two parliamentary terms.

Ms Sturgeon replied that, had Labour's Scottish manifesto from 2016 been implemented, it would have provided £758m less per annum to the NHS than the SNP plans.

But still the question of indyref2 persisted. Pursued by the wicked media outside the chamber, Mr Leonard resolutely denied any prospect of a pact with anyone. Labour was heading for majority power at Westminster.