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Moment of Menace

Brian Taylor | 14:47 UK time, Thursday, 17 March 2011

Many happy returns to Dennis the Menace, a springlike 60 today.

Perhaps it was the anniversary but the spirit of the Dundonian rascal seemed to hover over the Holyrood chamber, tempting the first minister.

Now don't get me wrong, Alex Salmond was not kitted out in red and black stripes.

Nor was his hair spiky and defiant. But his mojo was mischief once more.

You'll recall that, in recent weeks, there has been a conscious attempt by the first minister, guided by advisers, to tone down his act, to sound governmental rather than gladiatorial.

Not today. I suspect it was because Labour's Iain Gray chose to major on the economy - a subject which Mr Salmond, a former Royal Bank economist, regards as his natural territory.

Getting to his feet, the FM offered an introductory: "Right!" You could sense he was metaphorically rolling up his sleeves - or even getting his jacket off in preparation for combat.

Sardonic tone

And conflict there was. As Alex Salmond piled in, at his side sat Mike Russell growling supportively, like an intellectual Gnasher.

However, Mr Gray resolutely declined to play the role of Walter the Softy.

Instead, he adopted an angry and sardonic tone as he accused the FM of sounding complacent in the face of high unemployment, particularly among young people.

Mr Salmond responded by insisting that Scottish government efforts had helped ensure that employment had risen for eight successive months while unemployment had fallen for four.

The big spat, though, came over construction investment. (I know, I know, not one to entice Dennis and Gnasher - but it matters.)

Mr Gray cited one set of figures with regard to capital investment, showing a decline.

Mr Salmond said those were PFI figures only, not the total picture. Mr Gray said people out of work didn't believe the FM.

At which point, Mr Salmond played what he plainly believed was his trump card.

University funding

The assertive grin was back, the voice was loud, his whole demeanour dismissive.

On the topic of credibility, he said that Iain Gray had pinched a succession of policies from the SNP.

University funding, the council tax freeze, Monklands A&E.

In the chamber, on the day, it was effective.

Certainly, the FM's chums roared appreciatively. They like Menace.

But Mr Gray wasn't finished.

He reminded the chamber that the SNP had dumped manifesto pledges such as a promise to pay off student debts. (In addition, Labour argues that the SNP has lifted Labour policies, such as an integrated care service and cutting the number of police forces.)

Early release

More fundamentally, Iain Gray argued that the SNP would leave office with unemployment in Scotland higher than when they entered.

The FM, in response, turned to satire, noting that some accountability for that might just perhaps rest upon the shoulders of the former PM and Chancellor, Gordon Brown. Labour, he said, could not be trusted on the economy.

On then to the exchanges with the Tories and the Liberal Democrats which were notably more gentle, covering the serious topics of automatic early prison release and business rates.

The moment of Menace had passed.

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