Dan Vevers Does FMQs: Sentencing, chuntering and games of Jeopardy

CommonSpace columnist Dan Vevers returns with his take on this week's FMQs - we hope you're in a grumpy mood...

EVEN the most waterproof of political anoraks would admit that this week’s FMQs was a little on the dry side, and that a good few members seemed a bit grumpy, not least the speaker.

It was the first session back after a week’s recess, but rather than seeming like they had just enjoyed a week away from the office, a general mood of tetchiness and tension was in the air - perhaps due to the budget vote coming later in the day.

Sturgeon goes for the unpopular vote

First up, Ruth Davidson rose to ask about prison sentencing, in the wake of the reduced jail term given last week to the killer of schoolgirl Paige Doherty. Both Davidson and the first minister were at pains to be relatively conciliatory on the matter, with due tribute paid to the increasingly relevant independence of the judiciary.

But, Davidson said, it is Holyrood which makes the law and sets the "framework" for sentencing. She referred to the Conservatives’ own long-standing commitment for bringing in whole life sentences for the murderers of children, plying Sturgeon for a policy endorsement which unsurprisingly didn’t come.

"We will always consider proposals for change which we think are evidence-based, that are - again, this is not always a popular opinion to say - that are consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights," said Sturgeon.

Oh well, there goes the Daily Mail and Daily Express-reading demographic then.

Kezia pressures on children's ward closure

Labour leader Kezia Dugdale led on the closure of a children’s ward at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, asking why the first minister said the ward wouldn’t be closed during one of last year’s pre-election televised debates.

Sturgeon retorted that the decision had only been made by the health board last week, and that the health secretary would give the proposals "full and proper consideration".

Dugdale seemed to have a bit of a cold, and said she hoped the Scottish Government would do the right thing but added: "I’m not holding my breath." Which was just as well, as it seemed in short supply.

The first minister got herself right angry and did her usual "shameful" and "disgraceful" routine on the Labour leader and never once offered to get her a Lemsip, which to my mind is the true disgrace.

A Scottish Tory heidscratcher

Around this time, the presiding officer, Ken Macintosh felt compelled to butt in on account of backbench heckling, an intervention which seemed to briefly throw Sturgeon off her stride before she recovered.

He would do so again when Tory MSP Jamie Greene rose to ask an admittedly head-scratching question on air gun legislation.

"I’m not expecting reverential silence," stormed a grumpy Macintosh, perhaps thinking he should have done this months ago. "But just as there shouldn’t be chuntering when the first minister is trying to answer questions, there shouldn’t be similar interventions when someone is trying to ask a question."

The grumps were contagious. Willie Rennie of the Lib Dems, normally the light in the gloom that lifts one’s heart, asked about the SNP’s long-standing policy on getting an extra 1000 bobbies on the beat. 

The whole dreary, moody affair was brightened up right at the end by Maurice Golden, whose memorable turn will join the pantheon of great Scottish performances by people named Maurice.

"For years the first minister has talked of little else," he said.

A smirking Nicola Sturgeon pointed out that this remark "gives lie to the accusation that I’m always talking about other matters", and at that I thought the entire chamber would be game for a laugh, but Rennie instead scowled, rolled his eyes and angrily sipped his water.

However, the whole dreary, moody affair was brightened up right at the end by Maurice Golden, whose memorable turn will join the pantheon of great Scottish performances by people named Maurice along with Maurice Roëves’ portrayal of Colonel Munro in The Last of the Mohicans.

The backbench Tory tried to tear into the Scottish Government on its legal bill for the recent Supreme Court Brexit case, but did so in a manner akin to a de-clawed kitten trying to get at the Christmas presents.

After hearing the first minister’s initial response, he roared nonsensically: "This is like a game of Jeopardy: Brexit, Westminster and the Tories."

Presiding Officer Dreary MacGrumpintosh spoils the fun

"Will the member please get to the question?" interrupted tetchy Mr Grumpygills in the presiding officer's chair.

The first minister pointed and laughed at Ruth Davidson for having such a nuts backbencher, despite the fact that John Mason had risen only minutes before to talk about his prostate.

"We always know when Ruth Davidson is completely embarrassed by one of her backbenchers because she starts having a completely separate conversation," Sturgeon said, giddy with mirth.

She then proceeded to feast on the carcass of Golden’s Tory frontbench prospects, suggesting it would be nice if the UK Government released their own legal bill.

"We always know when Ruth Davidson is completely embarrassed by one of her backbenchers because she starts having a completely separate conversation," Sturgeon said, giddy with mirth.

The first minister rounded it off by saying the Brexit case exposed that the Sewell Convention was "utterly meaningless", adding: "The promises the Tories make to Scotland can never, ever be trusted."

At which point the SNP benches went mental and even seemed to start up some kind of football chant.

"Order, order," said Speaker MacGrumpintosh. "That’s quite enough."

And he’s right: it probably was. Time for a lie down.

Pictures courtesy of the Scottish Parliament

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