Wednesday, 28 Feb 2024

No mercy for Sturgeon in her final FMQs

Nicola Sturgeon’s farewell speech

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As members of the Scottish Parliament arrived for Nicola Sturgeon’s last bow as First Minister, some SNP representatives were spotted bringing in boxes of tissues to deal with the expected high emotions of the occasion. But as the tissues were passed around the loyal backbenchers, Tory MSP Sandesh Gulhane only mourned the fact he wasn’t allowed to take photographic evidence of the gushing scene.

Unfortunately for Mrs Sturgeon, her opponents weren’t prepared to give her an easy ride on her final Holyrood outing.

Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, delivered his first left hook as he opened the question session.

Mr Ross focused in on the recent SNP membership scandal, in which both Mrs Sturgeon’s husband and the party’s chief press officer were forced to resign after it emerged the public had been misled over the party’s membership figures.

He asked: “Why did Nicola Sturgeon’s party – the party of government in this parliament – lie to the press and the public?”

Mrs Sturgeon forced a smile as convincing as the SNP’s initial denials that they’d lost 30,000 members, loftily telling the room “I’ve got nothing to add to what I’ve already said.”

It immediately became apparent she in fact had an awful lot to add to what she’s already said.

She continued, “The SNP remains the only mass-membership party in this country – applause – we have by far more members than any other party represented in this chamber”.

Mrs Sturgeon demanded that before asking any more questions, Mr Ross clarified the number of Scottish Tory members.

SNP MSPs enjoyed this jibe so much that they refused to stop clapping until the Presiding Officer intervened, possibly in the hope they could continue applauding for the remaining 55 minutes of the session and save their outgoing leader the headache of having to face any more questions.

A second question about the state of the SNP and its self-harming leadership contest prompted Mrs Sturgeon, possibly for the first time in her career, to attack Mr Ross for not asking questions about “the National Health Service, or education, or the economy or climate justice”.

Mr Ross, grinning like a Cheshire Cat, heckled “I’ll come to that!”

It was Labour leader Anas Sarwar who brought the debate around to issues that might actually matter to Scots, asking Nicola Sturgeon to sum up “which of her government’s many failures does the First Minister think her successor needs to address first”.

Mrs Sturgeon began, “well with the greatest of respect, Anas Sarwar is just wrong”, her furious expression betraying that she meant no respect whatsoever.

The First Minister then pulled out a claim so astonishing she presumably hoped would confuse the chamber into a permanent stunned silence.

She said: “I mean, let’s look first of all at some of the institutions that didn’t even exist when I became First Minister: Revenue Scotland for example… Social Security Scotland… The Scottish National Investment Bank… The NHS…”

For a government seemingly intent on grinding the health service to a halt, claiming credit for the NHS – launched 22 years before Nicola Sturgeon was born – was an audacious claim.

If she were a Westminster politician, no doubt Harriet Harman would have already launched a full investigation into her misleading the House.

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Half an hour later we got to the whole point of the question session – Nicola Sturgeon’s final farewell.

There were tears, voice cracks, a sense of relief – from both Mrs Sturgeon and opposition MSPs, buckets of rose-tinted reflection, and optimism for the future – again from both Mrs Sturgeon and opposition MSPs.

For those watching the FMQs live stream, the poignancy and emotion of the final farewell was brought crashing down every time the cameras panned to the public gallery, where a class of Scottish school children failed to disguise their complete boredom over the whole event.

One girl appeared to pick her nose, a hoodied boy sat bent double, his face in his lap, another girl looked to the ceiling as if asking for divine intervention to get her to the parliamentary canteen as soon as possible.

Mrs Sturgeon ended her speech by saying, “It truly has been the privilege of my lifetime, and with these words, presiding officer, I draw it to a close.”

She wiped a tear, received a prolonged standing ovation from her backbench MSPs, and the bored school kids were filmed finally leaving to get their lunch.

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