Lesley Riddoch: Is Nicola Sturgeon being let off too easily?

Is Nicola Sturgeon getting off without due scrutiny during the Coronavirus crisis, asks Lesley Riddoch.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon interviewed by Andrew Marr on BBC - Sunday, april 26

The question arose this weekend after newspapers reported the First Minister missed six meetings of the UK’s Cobra emergency committee before March 2nd, sending Health Secretary Jeane Freeman, Mental Health minister Clare Haughey and former Chief Medical Officer Dr Catherine Calderwood instead. This was pounced on by several unionist papers and Labour politicians, with the unmistakable scent of “gotcha” in the air.

Neil Findlay MSP said; “Nicola Sturgeon has outdone even the Prime Minister on the negligence front – missing not five but six Cobra meetings.”

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The Scottish Government swiftly replied; “The First Minister has chaired meetings of the Scottish Government Resilience Committee, our equivalent of Cobra, since January 29.”

And with that, the story began to stutter.

Perhaps Nicola Sturgeon decided there was little point in making long journeys to London for meetings, which the Prime Minister himself wasn’t planning to attend. That seems fair enough.

Of course, the Westminster Government and British media expect the First Minister should turn up in person when there’s even the tiniest chance Scotland might get a mention, and have consistently scorned any suggestion of equivalence between First Ministers and Prime Ministers in meetings or TV election debates. But during the long Brexit process, the Constitution Secretary Mike Russell has generally represented the Scottish Government at UK level, rather than the FM. No-one’s complained about that, or suggested the First Minister’s absence means she isn’t taking Brexit seriously.

In any case, is the First Minister of Scotland sending a Health Minister to Cobra meetings really the same as the Prime Minister not pitching up? It’s unusual for leaders of the devolved governments to be invited to meetings - as unusual as Prime Ministers not chairing them.

Cobra (“Cabinet Office Briefing Room A”) refers to the emergency committee formed when a crisis forces different Whitehall departments to work together. Meetings are held in the Cabinet Office, just behind 10 Downing Street. A small walk for Boris Johnson, a full day’s travel for the FM.

Nicola Sturgeon has another fish to fry in the shape of the Scottish Government Resilience Committee (Scotland’s Cobra committee) whose weekly meetings she’s chaired since January. Boris has no national equivalent “English” taskforce to steer. The Whitehall meetings are basically his shout, with his ministers, his civil servants and his invited guests. So, there’s not much of an equivalence.

Furthermore, once Boris Johnson decided to turn up and Cobra meetings became virtual, (making attendance easier for busy, distant participants) Nicola Sturgeon seems to have been present.

So, is there really a story here? Should we really be focused on which Scottish Government Minister attends UK planning meetings instead of the far trickier question - why has Scotland chimed so closely with a UK strategy that’s seen more deaths from Covid 19 than other European countries?

Scotland’s strategic path through the pandemic is vitally important to question and consider.

The wisdom of automatically retaining the four nations approach must be up for debate. Yet Labour politicians and interviewers seem reluctant to open up these big issues, lest they acknowledge the Scottish Government has the power and moral responsibility to go its own way, if scientists and public health experts here believe Boris Johnson is wrong.

So Nicola Sturgeon is more often harried by interviewers than properly grilled.

Take BBC’s Andrew Marr’s interview with Nicola Sturgeon on Sunday. He did ask about the shocking number of care home deaths in Scotland, but clearly annoyed many viewers north of the border by failing to compare like with like. Everyone knows that Public Health England isn’t counting Covid deaths in care homes as part of the terrible daily total. So, for as long as “I see no ships” is standard procedure south of the border, Nicola Sturgeon actually gets credit for being transparent and honest about the apparently larger total of care home deaths here.

But that doesn’t mean Scottish systems are good enough.

Writing in a Scottish Sunday newspaper, Nicola Sturgeon seemed to acknowledge the underlying weakness of current social care arrangements;

“When things come apart - when the kaleidoscope of our lives is shaken - there is an opportunity to see them put back together differently, and see a new way of doing things... we can go further than rebuilding, and look seriously at social and economic reform.”

There was plenty to explore in that sentence alone. But instead, the BBC’s flagship political interviewer posed questions that couldn’t get a definitive answer - when Andrew Marr himself might be able to visit his Dundee-based parents again, when schools might re-start and whether Scotland might do that sooner or later than England. Throughout the interview, Marr could be heard muttering “yip, right, ok” as if Ms Sturgeon was rambling off the point - she wasn’t - and had to be shut down.

Finally, he thanked the First Minister for “getting up”, as if she would otherwise still be lying in bed at 10am.

Everyone can have an off day, but Marr’s interview was unwatchably weird and seems to have rallied viewers north and south of the border who prefer Nicola Sturgeon’s open “grown up conversation” approach to Dominic Raab’s “sorry that’s our little secret” response. Social media was full of comment from self-declared unionists suggesting “Our FM has been doing an excellent job in being honest and transparent with the Scottish people.”

“Nicola Sturgeon always attempts to answer, she did it today and “we don’t know” at least is an honest answer.”

Indeed, three weeks before lockdown, even Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell tweeted his admiration for Nicola Sturgeon’s approach compared to Boris Johnson’s; “She sounds concerned but clear. He sounds bored and bumbling. I cannot be the only one who feels slightly ashamed of the UK every time I hear him described as PM.”

Admittedly these distinctions are all about tone over substance. But when interviewers pull their punches and prefer to waste valuable time encouraging speculation over unknowable dates to asking tough questions about policy outcomes, then tone is everything.

Scotland’s First Minister understands that - we’ll find out soon if Boris Johnson’s brush with Covid means he has finally mastered the art of enlisting not belittling the public as well.