FMQs Sketch – Sturgeon grilled on Health and Justice before bizzare rant steals show

Nicola Sturgeon announced the new vote today. Picture: John Devlin
Nicola Sturgeon announced the new vote today. Picture: John Devlin
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“I’m pleased that Willie Rennie says that I’m never done talking about justice, because I’m often accused of never talking about something else.”

The people that regularly tune in for First Minister’s Questions know just how significant what Nicola Sturgeon said was in Holyrood today.

But that’s not to say that the controversial issue of a second referendum didn’t rear its head during Sturgeon’s weekly back-and-forth with MSPs.

The surprisingly substantive initial exchanges allowed a Tory and Labour pincer movement on Justice and the NHS to have Sturgeon on the back foot, before a Conservative backbencher’s rant ramped up the cringe factor.

Should life mean life?

Ruth Davidson, the Tory leader, was first to bat and decided to move away from the constitution and prod the First Minister on a case that has shocked the nation.

Speaking of the recent decision to reduce the sentence of John Leathem, who murdered schoolgirl Paige Doherty, Davidson said that families are beginning to feel like the odds are stacked against them.

Sturgeon knows that she had to tread to carefully on the issue – come down too hard against the decision, and she risks compromising the independent judiciary.

Let the judge who made the decision off the hook, as it were, and she risks looking like she has gone against victims and their families.

Sturgeon approached the topic carefully, and made sure to offer her condolences to the family multiple times as she sought to remind Davidson of the importance of an independent system.

Davidson, showing her political nous, quickly switched gears to announce that the Tories were backing a move to introduce whole life tariffs to the Scottish sentencing system.

That seemed to take Sturgeon by surprise, and she didn’t immediately come down one way or the other on that policy.

It was a smart move by Davidson, and will give right-wing outlets a chance to get behind what is a classic piece of populist policy making.

As Davidson pointed out, the problem isn’t just that Paige Doherty’s killer will only serve 23 years in prison, but that families all over the country feel the dice is loaded in favour of criminals, not victims.

Big Mac-Gate

Labour leader Kezia Dugdale was also on good form, as some key indicators show.

It is always a sign that Sturgeon, like her predecessor Alex Salmond, is struggling when she cites the SNP’s poll ratings in comparison to Labour’s, and when she talks about the actions of the 1999-2007 Labour and Lib Dem administration.

It’s also a giveaway when Sturgeon tells the questioner that he or she should be ashamed of themselves for what they are asking.

So Dugdale will be through the roof that she managed to wring the hat-trick out of the First Minister with her questions on NHS cuts.

Dugdale wanted Sturgeon to comment on the planned closure of a children’s ward in Paisley, but the SNP leader wasn’t willing to take the bait.

Sturgeon noted that the decision was made by the Health Board, and would have to be approved by Sturgeon’s successor as Health Secretary, Shona Robison.

Dugdale had brought a living, breathing prop to the chamber as she pointed out that someone who implored Sturgeon to keep the ward open was sitting watching First Minister’s Questions.

It’s a tactic that has been used plenty of times before, and is only effective when used sparingly. This wasn’t quite the right time, and Dugdale’s approach was far better served when she took on SNP backbenchers on their silence on the issue.

It’s an attack line that isn’t used enough, that the SNP MSPs are absurdly pliant to the views of the leadership.

The Paisley MSPs were in the firing line, and a good line saw George Adam eviscerated for putting up more of a fight to save his local McDonald’s than his local children’s ward.

Stay Golden

Someone must have jinxed it. We had nearly gone an entire session of First Minister’s Questions with a reference to the mooted second independence referendum.

Maurice Golden, Tory MSP, seemed to see an attempt to steal the limelight of a relatively sedate session, and ended up doing so for all the wrong reasons.

After a tepid back-and-forth with Nicola Sturgeon on whether the Government’s £140k Supreme Court Brexit bill was worth it, Golden saw his moment.

In his response, Golden launched into a bizarre and rambling rant – a ‘question’ that lasted a full minute and left even colleagues with their heads in their hands.

“It’s like a game of Jeopardy” said Golden, with a sizzling hot cultural reference to an obscure American game show that all of 6 people watching will have recognised.

Has Golden been given advance notice that he won’t get another FMQ for a year? Maybe so, because he seemed intent on getting as many topics covered as possible.

Barely pausing for breath, Golden held forth on Brexit, independence, policymaking, the Britsh Transport Police, income tax, and everything else that took his fancy.

Sturgeon said that Ruth Davidson was visibly embarrassed by Golden’s rant. The truth was, everyone watching was embarrassed – and it allowed Sturgeon, who had had a difficult session so far, to finish on a flourish.