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In the presence of Balls

Brian Taylor | 12:58 UK time, Thursday, 10 March 2011

Perhaps it was the presence of Ed Balls, watching from the public gallery, but Labour's Iain Gray seemed in a notably combative mood for his weekly contest with the first minister.

Indeed, at one point, Mr Gray appeared to be suggesting that intellectual interrogation might be replaced by a square go as he declared, with menace, that he was ready to "take on" Alex Salmond any time.

Were we about to witness a McCoist and Lennon moment?

But no. On mature reflection, it appeared that Mr Gray was referring to the remaining two sessions of First Minister's Questions and, of course, the encounters which will follow during the Holyrood election campaign.

Each seemed discontented with the other's tone.

Mr Gray noted sardonically that the FM had again adopted his sonorous, governmental "I'm in charge" voice. You know, the one where he turns down the volume and sounds sad.

According to Mr Gray, spin in a quiet voice remained spin.

In response, the FM looked more downcast than ever as if he could scarcely credit that his answers failed to elicit instant admiration.

Health spending

As is customary, he closed with a sting, advising his rival that "appearing every week as Mr Angry" wouldn't make the Labour leader look "tough or effective or respected."

Cue chamber hubbub.

The exchanges were about health spending and staffing.

Mr Gray said that acute beds had been cut. Mr Salmond said that the SNP had ring fenced health spending: would Labour do the same?

Mr Gray said that health staffing had been reduced in the past year.

Police forces

Mr Salmond said that there were more working in the NHS now than when the SNP took power.

Statistics dominated the remainder of the time. Annabel Goldie for the Conservatives asked how many health visitors there were in Scotland.

Tavish Scott for the Liberal Democrats asked for the figures on the presumed cost savings from cutting the number of police forces.

Unaccountably, neither seemed content with the replies which, boiled down, amounted to "loads" and "I'll tell you soon".


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