Yellow card

  • 22 November 2012
  • From the section Scotland

An intriguing news conference this afternoon - held in one of Holyrood's more remarkable rooms.

The elegant, little chamber at the very end of the Labour corridor in the MSPs office block was originally intended to be a gymnasium.

But, as the cost of the Holyrood building project slid inexorably to the north of £400m, wiser counsel prevailed.

It was concluded that a private gym for politicians and their cohorts might not go down all that wonderfully with the tax-paying public.

So there it lies, free from running machines or comparable instruments of torture.

With its smooth floor and mirrored wall, it looks a little like a dance rehearsal studio, straight out of Strictly. And, indeed, I am told that it has occasionally been used for a little light Pilates and cost-free aerobics.

Today, though, nary a foxtrot across its polished floor. Nor an American Smooth. Of jiving, there was none.

Instead, we were treated to an elegant display of linguistic gymnastics.

Fact checking

The subject was the suspension of Labour's Michael McMahon from parliamentary business today following his objection last night to a ruling by the Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick.

Under questioning from the wicked media, Mr McMahon repeatedly stressed that he accepted the PO's ruling, that he was not challenging her authority.

And yet, more than once, he said that he regarded the punishment as "disproportionate".

Still repeatedly, he was invited to deliver a comment upon the behaviour of the PO. Repeatedly, he declined, preferring to focus on other matters.

What is going on? The target, of course, is not the Presiding Officer directly - although there are some, perhaps many, in Labour ranks who feel that she has not been sufficiently assiduous in facilitating methods of holding ministers to account.

The true target is the Scottish government itself. Partly from genuine exasperation, partly from tactics, Labour is driving a narrative that ministers are being loose with the facts and manipulating parliament in order to thwart scrutiny.

Chamber outburst

The particular issue here was a comment made in the chamber by the first minister to the effect that there were 18,000 jobs in Scotland reliant upon renewable energy. He added the caveat "I think".

Checks duly disclosed that the accurate figure was 11,000. Mr Salmond took steps to correct the record in the Official Report of Parliamentary proceedings, as he is entitled to do under the rules.

However, Liz Smith, the Tory MSP who had questioned Mr Salmond about green jobs, complained that she had not been notified of the change. (She has now, at the point when the record was actually changed rather than at the point the request was made.)

Ms Smith made her complaint in parliament yesterday evening. In the chair, the PO said Mr Salmond had acted within the rules - although she noted the guidance suggesting methods for notifying participants in the event of such a change.

Labour's Michael McMahon felt such a ruling was inadequate - and yelled, in the direction of the chair: "You're out of order!"

Given that Ms Marwick is the custodian of order in parliament, this was an explicit challenge to her authority.

Invited to withdraw his remark, Mr McMahon swiftly apologised. After being summoned for a meeting with Ms Marwick and after a period of further consideration, he was told he was to be suspended.

Yellow card

Which brought us to the dance studio today. Mr McMahon sounded genuinely pained when it was put to him that he might have acted with anything short of honour.

He drew upon his past life. He had, he said, been used prior to parliament to coping with the ambient noise of a steel works.

As a consequence, his voice was naturally rather loud. His challenge to the PO had been instinctive, born of frustration. And, he accepted, wrong.

So why not just accept the punishment? Even if he thought it should have been a yellow card, rather than a red one, why not just take the rap and spend the day clearing constituency mail? (He is banned from parliamentary business, not the premises.)

Because there is a rough, almost feral, atmosphere in Holyrood at present. The opposition parties can scent weakness on the government side: the colleges row, the wrong sums.

In response, Mr Salmond suggested that opposition leaders have frequently made inaccurate comments in parliament - without subsequent correction.

Plus, of course, there is the ever present factor of the impending independence referendum. (Impending, that is, in its contemporary meaning of two years away.)

Mr McMahon said he wanted parliament to ponder whether there should be a change to the rules to find some way of obliging ministers to be subject to more sustained scrutiny.

Neutral custodian

For myself, I cannot instantly see a way of doing that - without changing the role of the PO entirely to give the chair the power to query the content of ministerial statements.

Which would make her more like a powerful political president, able to challenge and even countermand the FM, rather than the neutral custodian of parliamentary order.

As for the PO herself, she is clearly upset by these developments. Her voice was quavering somewhat as she announced Mr McMahon's suspension today.

She has repeatedly reminded MSPs that she is responsible for order - not for the content of what is said. That is a matter for political dispute and debate, not for the chair.

But she is also responsible for the reputation of parliament. She plainly concluded, on reflection, that neither order nor reputation would be enhanced by permitting Mr McMahon's comments to stand without penalty. Nor, perhaps, her own authority.

If this atmosphere persists - and it is difficult to see, at present, what might dispel it - then the PO will need to be deft indeed to forestall further such conflict.