After the summer recess she’s had, Nicola Sturgeon could have been forgiven for looking somewhat under the cosh when she appeared before MSPs for the first day back at school.
Yet despite the ructions within her party stemming from allegations of sexual misconduct against her predecessor Alex Salmond, the First Minister appeared perfectly poised when she took to the floor in the Holyrood chamber.
Ruth Davidson returned to the familiar ground of “soft touch justice” with her opening gambit, as though MSPs had never been away, calling for action on Michelle’s Law to allow families of victims of crime a greater say in the release of criminals.
She said Michelle Stewart’s family felt they had been treated as an “afterthought” and complained of “lots of warm words but nothing concrete” from talks with Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf. She said the family was “not asking for the world” and informed the First Minister they were present in the chamber.
For the first time Ms Sturgeon appeared put off her stride. She said that if they were there they were very welcome and that ministers would be happy to meet them.
Richard Leonard then took to his feet, hoping to land a blow over the use of a teaching app in schools through which primary school children had been exposed to pornographic images.
Why did this app remain available for six weeks over the summer after the problem had been drawn to the attention of Education Secretary John Swinney? Ms Sturgeon told him it is unavailable to pupils and a replacement is being sought. Mr Leonard persisted by demanding an investigation.
Frustrated and tetchy, as evidenced by her trademark chuckle, Ms Sturgeon repeated her response that the app is offline for pupils and the incident is being investigated. “I’m surprised Mr Leonard is not welcoming that”, she said.
The two main party leaders safely dispensed with, Ms Sturgeon was then presented by Labour’s Neil Findlay with the case of Eileen Baxter as featured on the front page of today’s Scotsman. Her death is thought to be the first in Scotland to be linked to mesh implant surgery. When, Mr Findlay asked, will Ms Sturgeon stop health boards using this “grotesque, deadly product”.
The First Minister dealt with the question deftly, conveying her condolences to Mrs Baxter’s family and transferring a large portion of the blame to regulation of medical devices (which is, of course, reserved at Westminster).
After questions on job losses, an imminent deportation and recompense for businesses affected by fires in the centre of Glasgow, Scottish Green Party co-convener Patrick Harvie pressed the first minister on figures this week revealing a fall in satisfaction with public services. “What needs to change?” he demanded.
Ms Sturgeon chuckled. Negotiations are under way, she told him. The EIS teaching union welcomed some things in her Programme for Government. We are making investments.
Mr Harvie was not satisfied. Sensing the First Minister on the back foot, he highlighted cuts made by cash-starved councils, including the loss of free swimming lessons and music tuition. “Children are losing out,” he told her.
Ms Sturgeon returned to her comfort zone. Cash available for councils was being squeezed as the Scottish Government was not receiving enough money from Westminster, she told him.
Finally, Liberal Democrat Tavish Scott then asked whether she would accept a vote by MSPs (as seems likely) to do away with controversial standardised testing of P1 pupils. The tenor of her response indicated she would not. We need to be “calm” about these tests, Ms Sturgeon said. Testing is not new, there is no pass or fail, she told him.
So drew to a close the first First Minister’s Questions of the parliamentary session. And Ms Sturgeon must have breathed a sigh of relief that the Salmond-shaped elephant in the room never raised its head.