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Redirected controversy

Brian Taylor | 10:44 UK time, Wednesday, 2 September 2009

UPDATE AT 1430: And, later, as the debate progressed, Westminster implications predominated.

As Alex Salmond was winding up the debate, a special adviser handed him a note regarding the views expressed by the Prime Minister.

Mr Salmond duly informed the chamber that Gordon Brown had stressed his respect for the right of Scottish Ministers to take the decision regarding al Megrahi - "and for the decision".

The first minister placed substantial emphasis upon the latter element regarding the decision itself: emphasis which had not been present in Mr Brown's own delivery.

Indeed, by contrast, the PM seemed to underplay an element which Mr Salmond thought crucial.

As to the debate itself, I thought it was of a relatively high standard: notably better than the exchanges during last week's emergency statement. Perhaps further consideration has added depth.

There were good individual speeches from Elaine Murray who emotively described the feelings in Lockerbie, from Malcolm Chisholm who explained why he would be voting with the Scottish Government and from Patrick Harvie who sought to return the chamber to the underlying issues.

Parties combine

The vote? Alex Salmond's government will lose as the main opposition parties combine.

But Mr Salmond can afford to discount this vote. For why?

The decision itself does not require parliamentary sanction. This is not a confidence vote - either in the minister or the government.

It will not become a confidence vote - because that might seem too nakedly partisan on the part of opposition parties.

And because Labour might now be keen to get off this topic given the discomfiture caused to the PM.

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Vigorous debate under way at Holyrood on the decision to release the Lockerbie bomber.

Today's proceedings in the Scottish Parliament were opened by David Cameron.

Not, you will have calculated, the Conservative leader. We are dealing here with the Rev David Cameron of Queensferry parish kirk who was appearing in the regular prayer slot, irreverently titled by some "Thought for the Week".

Smiling gently, the Rev Cameron reminded MSPs the parliamentary mace bore the legend: wisdom, justice, compassion, integrity. A useful blend, he suggested, for political decision making, especially the tough ones.

However, the shade of his Tory namesake hovered over the debate as it got under way.

Yes, MSPs were debating a decision by the Scottish justice secretary on the fate of a man previously held in a Scottish prison.

But, especially following the publication of detailed documents yesterday, the controversy has palpably shifted south, adding to the pressure upon the prime minister - from whom we are due to hear later today.

Deft sidestepping

Thus it was that the First Minister Alex Salmond pre-empted today's debate with a point of order inviting Labour to redraft their amendment condemning Mr MacAskill's decision.

That position, he said, had become "totally and absolutely ridiculous", given disclosures that UK Ministers had been averse to the concept of al Megrahi being left in a Scottish jail to die.

The point was deftly sidestepped by Alex Fergusson, the presiding officer. But the issue had been raised - and it seemed, to some extent, to discomfit Labour's Richard Baker who opened for his party.

Challenged about the views of his party colleagues at Westminster, he said that was irrelevant. It was Mr MacAskill's decision which counted.

That was met with uncharitable guffaws - including from those who insist on just such an assertion. That's politics: things move on.

To be fair, Mr Baker rallied to close relatively strongly, accusing the SNP ministers of arrogance.

Clinical dissection

Other front bench contributors, Bill Aitken and Robert Brown, offered clinical dissection of the evidence.

Mr Aitken notably sought to extend the criticism beyond Kenny MacAskill alone by repeatedly referring to decisions taken by "the Salmond government".

Of course, Mr Aitken's Tory party is assiduously seeking to extend the controversy still further to include Gordon Brown.

Right now, right now, that is where the debate is heading. It may well revert but Scottish Ministers plainly believe that the redirected controversy assists them.

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