That is about as exact an answer as anybody has ever given in any parliament,” Alex Salmond said, as he yet again claimed that college resource funding had gone up from £545 million to £546m.
Coming from a former Royal Bank of Scotland economist, the numbers sounded authoritative and the words sounded unequivocal. Both, however, would come back to haunt him.
Mr Salmond arrived at the Holyrood chamber fully prepared to defend his embattled education secretary Mike Russell, who was facing allegations of bullying and intimidation after he pressurised an education official into resigning. Effortlessly, the First Minister batted off calls for Mr Russell himself to quit over claims that the education secretary misled parliament when he told MSPs back in June that there was no reduction in college funding.
As Mr Russell brayed in approval, the First Minister repeated his apparently watertight figures with total conviction and Labour leader Johann Lamont’s calls for the education secretary’s head sounded shriller and shriller. Bizarrely, Mr Salmond turned his guns on Ms Lamont’s adviser Paul Sinclair.
Salmond quoted a Labour-supporting blog which had used the terms “stupid”, “politically tone-deaf” and “possibly fifth columnist” when discussing Mr Sinclair. Unbeknown to Mr Salmond, the “stupid”, “politically tone-deaf” adviser was circulating official documents that would make a nonsense of the First Minister’s figures.
They rubbished Mr Salmond’s claim that college funding had increased. Armed with the facts, journalists went to the lunchtime briefing by the First Minister’s official spokesman.
There they were told that Scottish Government officials were “checking” the figures, an admission that conjured thoughts of The Thick of It.
At 2:30pm, the Labour MSP Hugh Henry raised a point of order calling on Mr Salmond to come back to parliament to explain himself.
There was relish in Mr Henry’s voice as he parroted one of the First Minister’s favourite Burns quotes. “Facts are chiels that winna ding,” said Henry. “Ding, dong!,” he added with a flourish. Then it got serious. Mr Henry asked whether Mr Salmond had made an “elementary mistake or deliberately fiddled the figures”. So it was that Mr Salmond felt obliged to come back to the chamber to give as exact an apology as anyone has ever given in any parliament.