Sketch: Tories must have wanted to change subject to nuclear physics

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the first FMQs since the summer break. Picture: SWNS
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the first FMQs since the summer break. Picture: SWNS
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Looking tanned and healthy after the long summer break, MSPs settled down to the inaugural First Minister’s Questions of the new term.

Facing them was an exciting new format for the weekly shout-fest. In an attempt to jolly things along by adding some spontaneity to proceedings, the new Presiding Officer, Ken Macintosh, had shaken things up.

Introduced for the first time was a novel practice of giving MSPs the chance to ask supplementary questions – without notice and on any topic. (In the past all questions had to be submitted in advance).

In some ways it was a bit like University Challenge. In order to grab the quizmaster/Presiding Officer’s attention, participants had to press a button. It differed, however, in two important respects from the quiz show. Firstly, those with the fastest fingers got to ask a question rather than give an answer. Secondly, the subjects bore little relation to bright young things identifying obscure baroque composers or translating extracts of Beowulf from Old English at the behest of Jeremy Paxman.

Given the make-up of the parliament, it came as no ­surprise that things were a ­little more prosaic and, indeed, serious.

“Buzzzzz” (the buttons didn’t actually make a noise, but you know what I mean) went SNP MSP James Dornan.

“Ah ha!” said Macintosh. “We have an open supplementary question.”

The first of these exciting new questions had a familiar feel. Dornan was keen to embarrass one of his political opponents.

Would Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson withdraw the “deeply offensive and xenophobic remark” issued from her office which concerned the right of the former SNP MSP Christian Allard to comment on issues in his home constituency?

Dornan wanted to know whether the First Minister agreed that Davidson should apologise for a statement from her office which suggested that it was “bizarre” that Allard, as “an EU citizen” should have an interest in a planning application in Banchory. Nicola Sturgeon agreed that Davidson should apologise.

Earlier – during the more conventional sparring between leaders – Davidson had Sturgeon on the back foot. To Sturgeon’s discomfort, Davidson had read out a series of emails from serving British Transport Police officers which were highly critical of the Scottish Government’s plans to merge the force with Police Scotland. “Ludicrous” and “horrific” were just two of the adjectives used by the officers.

But the tide had turned and now it was Davidson under attack from her button-pressing critics. How the Tory leader must have wanted to change the subject to the Flemish Masters, or one of the lesser-known branches of nuclear physics.