David Maddox: Losers emerge winners as opposition leaves leadership virtually unscathed

THE Scottish Government was last night defeated in a vote over the most important decision any minister in Holyrood has had to make since devolution.

Yet the reality is that First Minister Alex Salmond and his justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, who made the controversial decision to send home the Lockerbie bomber on compassionate grounds, walked away from the debate virtually unscathed.

While the amendments put down by the three main opposition parties said they disagreed with the decision, they were phrased in a way that made them very weak and related to issues of process.

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The reason for this was to allow potential rebels, who agreed with Mr MacAskill's verdict, to stay within party ranks and make the number of votes cast look stronger.

It is well known that several Liberal Democrats had been willing to back the SNP, but in the end only Labour's Malcolm Chisholm broke ranks. The amendments were, in reality, a nit-picking exercise over the process of how the decision was reached. It was certainly far from being a clear message that parliament disagreed with the decision in terms of the substance of sending a mass murderer back home to a hero's reception.

And for the third time this year a mooted no confidence motion in Mr MacAskill failed to materialise. He and his colleagues must realise now that the opposition parties will never have the courage to put one down. Essentially, they fear Mr Salmond's government resigning and the chaos which would inevitably follow.

So, a relatively weak minister in a minority government, who, polls show, has made a decision most people in Scotland disagree with and has lost a vote in parliament, can probably walk away feeling that he is now in a stronger position. He is unlikely to be too worried about a committee inquiry.

His case was undoubtedly helped by the way that Holyrood Labour, the main opposition, was once again left high and dry by its colleagues in the UK government.

The revelations that Gordon Brown and his Foreign Secretary David Miliband supported early release made Scottish leader Iain Gray's principled stand against it look ridiculous.

The one thing he could say, and did, was that it proved he had his own mind.

But it also showed that the Westminster party has no concern about its Holyrood colleagues and the two do not even communicate properly.