THE term “a game of two halves” may be the most well-worn cliché in the sport’s pundit’s phrase book, but it was an apt description of events at First Minister’s Questions yesterday.
Alex Salmond barely survived a punishing first half at the hands of Johann Lamont. But once the Labour leader had been substituted by her Tory counterpart Ruth Davidson, Salmond rallied ferociously against less impressive questioning.
In that respect, FMQs was also a tale of two opposition leaders. The glum faces hanging low over the SNP backbenches while Lamont was in full flight were a sure sign that Salmond was getting a mauling. In recent weeks, Lamont has consistently had the better of the First Minister – more often than not as a result of her research team unearthing some nugget with the potential to embarrass the government.
It is an approach that the SNP knows only too well. John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon used very similar tactics very cleverly when they were in opposition to Jack McConnell. Over the years the NHS has proved a fruitful source of material for both parties – but rarely more effectively than yesterday. When Lamont uttered the words “health refugee” and talked of Scottish patients forced south of the border for treatment, there were gasps of horror and cries of shame.
But already there was the suspicion that Lamont had a surprise up her sleeve. Sure enough, she had a “case study” to back up her claims that such a situation had arisen because a cancer drug, which was prohibitively expensive in Scotland was free in England.
Sitting in the public gallery was Maureen Fleming, 63, a grandmother who could no longer spend money on the drugs required to treat her bowel cancer and was now contemplating a move to Newcastle where she can get the medicines for free.
Leaving aside the ethical question of whether it is appropriate to make political capital out of complex and desperately difficult circumstances, there was no doubt that Lamont had caught Salmond off his guard. The intrusion of real life into a session more used to empty rhetoric made Salmond’s answers look inadequate.
That was not the case when Davidson stood up to take her turn. As Lamont flourishes at FMQs, the Tory leader continues to struggle.
Having endured a pummelling, Salmond’s body language improved dramatically when he realised that Davidson was going to tackle him on the SNP’s position on Europe. For a Tory leader to mention the “E” word at this time of all times was foolhardy, to say the least. With Davidson’s party in turmoil on Europe, Salmond couldn’t wait to rise from his chair to denounce the Tories.
The denunciation was a demolition job that saw the SNP leader finish on a high. If Davidson is to survive in the Holyrood bear-pit, she would do well to become a bit more streetwise, a la Lamont.