Craig Paton Does FMQs: Harvie's trains 'n planes; Willie Rennie's banter; Kez tries to school Sturgeon

Columnist Craig Paton offers his weekly sketch of First Minister's Questions

WITH A local and general election looming, MSPs took some time out of their hectic schedules of shaking hands, kissing babies and generally making everyone they come into contact with violently uncomfortable to attend the weekly Festival of Shouting. 

Yes, FMQs is back again. This week, it appeared that Nicola Sturgeon had a bit of a cold, something that the first minister and I share, although I imagine that she doesn’t fight her illness with black-tar Mexican heroin.

Davidson and Sturgeon: Fish out of water

The title doesn’t really mean much, I just like puns. Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson began by stating that Sturgeon failed to answer a question from Willie Rennie last week about the SNP's manifesto position on Brexit. 

"He should have waited a week because now we have two," she said, adding that Sturgeon wants to be a full member of the EU while her MPs say that they want to leave the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), something that is necessary for full EU membership. 

"Ruth Davidson clearly hasn’t been paying attention," started the first minister, as she told her counterpart of the SNPs consistency in its position that the CFP should be reformed, pointing to the 2007 and 2011 manifestos, as well as the independence white paper as evidence. 

"It’s the SNP that always stands up for Scottish fishing," Sturgeon went on, which was met with a verbose howl of incredulous laughter from the Tories.

Davidson asked for clarification of the SNP position on the matter, given that deputy leader Angus Robertson had given a contrasting statement to two of his parliamentary colleagues. 

Sturgeon went straight on the offensive: "Ruth Davidson has managed to hold several different positions on Brexit, all by herself," she said, before going on to state that Davidson held the very position that she was accusing the SNP of holding, pointing to her performance at the televised debate from Wembley last summer.

Now we come to possibly the worst joke that has been made in my many, many minutes of covering FMQs. Delivered by our first minister, it may be enough to lose her the election. 

"On this issue, Ruth Davidson flip flops more than a fish being landed," she said, as though it was definitely hysterical. What made the joke even worse was the reaction of Cunninghame North’s Kenneth Gibson, as he chortled and guffawed, slapping the desk, with body language that said "I’m laughing" but eyes that said "I hate myself". 

Kez tries to school Sturgeon

Labour’s Kezia Dugdale used her question to highlight education. Dugdale stated that in the SNP’s tenure, the amount of teachers has dropped by 4,000, support staff by 1,000 and class sizes have grown, as well as a decline in Scotland’s standing in international tables. 

Dugdale said that the SNP’s response to this has been to make the same promises it has made for the past 10 years, and asked why the Scottish people should believe it this time.

"Education is my top priority," started the first minister, before being interrupted by the jeers and laughter of Labour. Sturgeon then questioned the credibility of the Labour leader, stating that, while the Labour council manifesto complains about freezing council tax, the only councils in this election that are proposing a freeze are Labour led.

Dugdale was undeterred, shifting the focus to the teacher shortage, asking the first minister how many teacher vacancies there were in Scotland.

This exchange began to feel more like the Two Ronnies lampoon of Mastermind, where the specialist subject was answering the question that came before, except nobody was answering anything and nothing was funny.

In what’s becoming a stalwart at FMQs, Sturgeon dodged the question by asking another one, saying of Labour, "if they don’t believe there is enough money for local services, then why are there eight Labour led councils going into this election promising to freeze the council tax?" 

She concluded by hoping that Dugdale would give a "straight answer", clearly failing to see the irony in not giving a straight answer and demanding one of your opponent.

Dugdale pointed out the first minister’s inability to answer, before taking it upon herself to answer for Sturgeon, saying that there are 700 teacher vacancies in Scotland, or roughly the same amount of votes that Ukip will get in Scotland this year. 

She then said that it would take three years to fill the vacancies before asking if the first minister can really say that education is her number one priority, as she also failed to ask the question that was asked of her.

This exchange began to feel more like the Two Ronnies lampoon of Mastermind, where the specialist subject was answering the question that came before, except nobody was answering anything and nothing was funny.

Patrick Harvie believes he can fly, but would rather take the train

The question from Scottish Greens co-convener Patrick Harvie seemed to be the breaking point for the presiding officer, as the first minister struggled to hear it. Ken Macintosh had to interrupt proceedings to scold John Swinney for his verbosity. The camera was trained solely on the Presiding Officer, presumably because Swinney was out of his seat, ripping of his jacket and shirt in anger, while hurling insults at Macintosh.

Harvie had just returned from his recent construction endeavour in Aberdeenshire, where he built a car that runs purely on the sighs of the nation whenever Boris Johnson does anything. 

He spoke of the possibility of tax breaks for the aviation industry, which would come at great carbon cost, as well as saving money for the highest income households, while the poor will not see such savings. Harvie asked how it would be fair to pass a tax break that would drive up both pollution and inequality.

Harvie had just returned from his recent construction endeavour in Aberdeenshire, where he built a car that runs purely on the sighs of the nation whenever Boris Johnson does anything. 

Beginning with the climate change angle, Sturgeon said that the government was meeting its ambitious carbon targets, and that its commitment to do so was absolute. 

Moving on to the wider issue, Sturgeon stressed that this week’s discussion in Holyrood was not of the tax cut itself, but of the devolution of the matter from Westminster. She then stated that the cut was to help improve the connectivity of Scotland, which would help grow the economy.

Sturgeon then stated that the policy was in its initial stage, and there would be plenty of time to scrutinise it. In response, Harvie - clearly wearing his sassy pants - said that the Greens look forward to amending the bill, and won’t vote for it unless the amendments pass. He also went on to state that if other methods of public transport were cheaper, then there would be less internal flights, and thus less emissions.

Someone buy Willie Rennie a motorbike

The bread to my butter, the wind to my sails, the man of the hour, Mr William J. Rennyson the third has arrived, to accuse the SNP of looking "shifty and evasive on Europe and independence". 

Oh Willie, you are a card. Rennie failed to reconcile Sturgeon’s assertion that this election was not about independence with her presence in Stirling, where she had the chance to sit on the motorbike of one of the Yes Bikers. Just a side note here, where Sturgeon was happens to be about 100 or so yards from my flat. It was early in the morning. 

She brought bagpipers.

And motorbikes. 

For the love of all that is holy. 

Rennie concluded by asking what the first minister's position was today, there must be a sale on sassy pants somewhere in Edinburgh.

"Does she really think we’re all buttoned up the back?" he asked. As his Lib Dem colleagues basked in the reflected glow, Rennie struggled to hold back a laugh at his own tremendous patter.

The first minister confirmed that she wants Scotland to be independent and part of the EU, questioning how he can struggle to understand her position, before launching into what sounded like a stump speech, saying that the key questions should be answered by Holyrood, and not by the "increasingly right wing" Tory government.

Rennie was having none of it. "Does she really think we’re all buttoned up the back?" he asked. As his Lib Dem colleagues basked in the reflected glow, Rennie struggled to hold back a laugh at his own tremendous patter.

Continuing, Rennie said that Sturgeon’s position on independence had been confused this week, "starting with denial and ending with a Hells Angels tour of the Central Belt". He went on to implore the first minister to cancel the "divisive" referendum campaign and "get back to her job for the people of Scotland". That may have been a bad move.

"So says the guy who’s going around the country arguing for a second EU referendum." That was an easy one. 

Sturgeon continued, asking why, if he felt they were so important, did Rennie mention in passing education, mental health and the economy instead of using his questions to ask her about them. "All the opposition parties, presiding officer, they’re the only ones who want to talk about independence." An explosion of laughter and boos and hisses filled the chamber before the sentence was over.

That brings us to the end of this week’s coverage, unfortunately we didn’t have time to cover questions from Monica Lennon (FUN FACT: Monica and I were born at the same hospital) who discussed the striking of college lecturers, Tavish Scott who asked about farming payment applications and Fulton MacGregor, who quizzed the first minister about the online safety of children, so check them out if you’re so inclined.

Pictures courtesy of the Scottish Parliament

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