First minister's questions: 'Guffawing and chortling'

From Democracy Live: Alex Salmond faced questions on monetry policy and student fees during question time

Not, all in all, the most comfortable question time which the first minister has had to endure/experience/enjoy.

All three of his principal opponents pursued him vigorously and tenaciously on disparate issues. Unaccountably, they each appeared dissatisfied with the replies received.

First up was Johann Lamont. She deployed the most powerful weapon in the politician's armoury: not statistics, not logic, not rhetoric - but ridicule.

Ms Lamont had her backbenches guffawing and chortling at what they reckoned was the FM's discomfiture - although, of course, that is not in itself any sort of guide as to what has actually occurred.

Loyal colleagues tend to resort fairly readily to the odd guffaw and chortle.

The point made by Ms Lamont arose from BBC Scotland's splendid independence debate on Sunday, one of a series.

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appeared to assert that, post independence, Scotland would gain a place on the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee as a distinct nation retaining the pound sterling.

What discussions had there been to enable this statement to be made, inquired Ms Lamont? What documents had been exchanged? What assurances given?

Start Quote

Mr Salmond gave figures. Lots of them”

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Rather than address that point directly, Alex Salmond argued it would be "entirely reasonable" for Scotland to gain such influence.

It would be a "grown up" way for Scotland and the rest of the UK to conduct business within a common sterling zone.

Further, RUK would welcome the involvement of Scotland in the sterling zone as Scottish resources such as oil would help to underpin the common currency.

Still, Ms Lamont persisted. What assurances had been given? What negotiations with the independent Bank of England?

Later, journalists pursued the same route of inquiry with the first minister's spokesperson.

The answer was that such matters would be set out in a Scottish government white paper to be published in November 2013, one year out from the proposed referendum.

But what entitled Ms Sturgeon to assert such a fact now? "Such matters will be set out . . ." And so the day wore on.

Back to the chamber. Following Ms Lamont, Ruth Davidson tried her hand for the Tories.

She wanted numbers on students from Northern Ireland applying to Scottish universities - and brandishing Irish passports to avoid fees here as citizens of an EU country.

Mr Salmond gave her figures. Lots of them. They disclosed the numbers applying from NI had fallen from 6131 to 5211 this year. No problem. QED.

Police reform

Again, unaccountably, Ms Davidson was less than content. The overall numbers did not matter, she said.

What counted was the percentage now claiming Irish citizenship by comparison with the previous tally doing so?

Mr Salmond insisted, again, that it was not a problem - and that he had only asked his officials to check in order to be ready to answer Ms Davidson who has raised this point before. And, I suspect, will raise it again as more emerges. If it does.

And then it was Willie Rennie's turn, for the Liberal Democrats.

Again, he chose a familiar topic - that of police service reform (or centralisation, as he bills it.) Would a single police force involve the closure or merger of local control rooms?

Answer there was none, the point being made that this would be an operational decision for the new single chief constable, when appointed.

Again, unaccountably, Mr Rennie was discontented. Indeed, he described the reply from the FM as "tosh".

In response, Mr Salmond insisted that local accountability and local provision would be enhanced by the move to a single police force.

A final thought.

At sundry points, Mr Salmond referred to the coalition being assembled to oppose plans for independence. He categorised it as a "Tory/Labour alliance" - with no mention of the Liberal Democrats.

This was not, I feel sure, an oversight. Mr Salmond, I suspect, has three purposes.

To characterise the anti-independence campaign as being Tory-driven; to embarrass Labour supporters about their linkage with a party which Anas Sarwar, Ms Lamont's deputy, described as "hated" in Sunday's debate; and to seek to prise the Lib Dems away from their unionist colleagues in order to bolster support for maximum devolution.

All that in a single phrase? Yep.

Brian Taylor, Political editor, Scotland Article written by Brian Taylor Brian Taylor Political editor, Scotland

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