Tom Peterkin: Labour are getting better at asking the kind of questions that hurt Alex Salmond

'Priority is surely preventing a strike, not issuing unwise advice'. Picture: Ian Rutherford
'Priority is surely preventing a strike, not issuing unwise advice'. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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ALEX Salmond’s dominance of the despatch box at First Minister’s Questions has often seemed to be one of the Scottish Parliament’s great constants.

His commanding position has become such a fixture that one almost expects the visitor guides to point it out along with Donald Dewar’s portrait, the bust of John Smith and the ancient stone lintel outside the members’ restaurant that used to adorn the original Scottish Parliament.

Recently, however, the odd crack has appeared in Salmond’s indomitable position as king of the chamber.

Last week, for example, Johann Lamont scored a notable hit when Labour highlighted the plight of two pensioners, who had been denied blankets while being treated in hospital.

The presence of Helen Macbeth, 92, and Jack Barr, 65, in the public gallery came as something of a shock to Salmond. After trying to knock-down Labour’s claims of a blanket shortage, Salmond was forced to meet these two NHS patients to discuss their unsatisfactory hospital experience.

It was an uncomfortable moment for Salmond, who was clearly furious that he had been surprised by Labour.

Yesterday’s session at First Minister’s Questions was far more low key than last week’s blanket ambush. There were, however, some clues as to the methods Labour are trying to use to outfox the First Minister.

In common with the blanket episode, Lamont made an attempt to inject a little of the real world into the rather rarefied world of Holyrood.

Lamont focussed on the education system this time round and tackled the First Minister on numeracy and literacy levels as well as the provision of PE in schools.

As one Labour strategist explained yesterday: “This makes him [Salmond] appear more divorced from reality and more like a presidential figure and that has got to be a good thing.”

Cheap shots are bandied around the chamber with enthusiasm and yesterday Lamont suggested that education secretary Michael Russell has “got the dunce’s cap”.

It was hardly a Wildean witticism but it did appear to stoke up Salmond. Lamont then tripped over her sound-bites, allowing Salmond to pounce.

“Someone who made two such elementary and appalling blunders when asking her questions shouldn’t start talking about dunce’s caps,” he said, returning the insult with interest.

Apparently Labour are reasonably relaxed about that kind of fiery response, believing it shows a less attractive side to the First Minister’s character.

It is this kind of issue-based approach combined by Lamont’s line in sarcasm that Labour feels will reap dividends at First Minister’s Questions.

There have been some encouraging signs for Labour, but whether this strategy will puncture the impression of invincibility that has been allowed to be built up around Salmond remains to be seen.