First Minister's (and ministers) Questions

Before casting an eye and/or an ear in the direction of First Minister's questions, perhaps a word about the warm-up.

The session billed as General Questions to Ministers comes immediately prior to FMQs, like a support act preparing the path for the star. And you know what it's like when the support are on: the crowds don't show.

But today General Questions definitely repaid inspection, featuring as it did a powerful and passionate attack by a Scottish government minister upon Labour's policy of freezing energy prices for two years, if elected to UK power.

Since Ed Miliband announced the policy at the Labour Conference, it has been dissected - and dissed or delighted in, according to taste. At Holyrood, Labour MSPs have sought the views of the governing SNP.

That newly restored front bencher, Iain Gray, pursued the point in the chamber today, posing a question to the Energy Minister Fergus Ewing.

Mr Ewing left Mr Gray and the relatively few onlookers in little doubt. A comparable tariff freeze in California had, he said, resulted in blackouts and an 800% increase in wholesale prices.

The minister added: "Never can I recall a measure introduced by a leader of a major political party in the UK which has received such widespread utter and total condemnation as being completely unworkable.

"And - worst of all for Scotland - such an arbitrary measure threatens to impair the essential investment in renewable energy schemes which are so important for this country."

Mr Ewing only paused during this attack to note that Labour members were plainly now listening to him. "They do not like it but they are listening", he observed.

It is certainly true that they were listening but I am not entirely sure that they were unhappy. To the contrary, they appeared to be quietly gleeful at the emergence of a distinct policy difference. That impression was reinforced when Labour issued a statement drawing attention to Mr Ewing's remarks.

At time of writing, I am awaiting an answer as to whether Mr Ewing's comments amount to formal Scottish government policy or whether they were obiter dicta. (See update below)

And so to FMQs......

Alex Salmond opened by announcing that 1,000 new jobs, mostly full time, are to be created in Scotland by the global company Teleperformance.

Labour's Johann Lamont welcomed these jobs, en passant, before swiftly turning to a complaint about what she claimed were unwarranted spending cuts afflicting colleges. Jobs, she said, required skilled employees.

The two then traded insults and statistics for a spell - with Ms Lamont stressing that college numbers were down and Mr Salmond insisting that full-time places, which were most salient to jobs, were up.

'Bobbies on the tweet'

As was only fitting given the topic, there was a scholarly edge to the exchanges. More precisely, Ms Lamont treated Mr Salmond like an errant pupil. (She used to be a teacher.)

A Scottish education, she said, had been wasted upon young Alex. He showed all the signs, she said, of "displacement activity", failing to address pointed questions. In the classroom, no doubt, Ms Lamont was frequently exhorting pupils to desist from displacement activity.

In response, the FM suggested that education had been the loser when his opponent turned to politics. Certainly, he implied, politics had not gained.

Both Ruth Davidson (Conservative) and Willie Rennie (Liberal Democrat) pursued the issue of the closure of 65 police station front counters.

Mr Salmond said this was an operational matter for the cops but noted that such front counters often had very few customers and that officers might be better deployed fighting crime. Which, he noted, was at a record low level.

The exchanges, however, were notably incisive, extending also to the issue of fire and police control rooms. Later, the Tories lampooned the prospect that the public might have to resort to social media to interact with the police. Was this, they said, "bobbies on the tweet"? Droll or what.

ADD..... (Posted 17:03)

Promised to get back to you when I had an answer from the Scottish government anent energy prices. Reply herewith from an SG spokesman.

"It is a scandal that there should be any fuel poverty in a country as energy-rich as Scotland, and in an independent Scotland all of those huge energy resources will be in Scotland's own hands.

"We share the wish to help households avoid rising energy bills. But it is completely unclear how any policy commitment to freeze energy bills could be implemented, and what the eventual impact on fuel bills would be - and the onus is on anyone proposing such a freeze to outline exactly how it could be achieved.

"There is also a danger that plans for a freeze could actually increase prices by driving away investment in renewable energy, in which Scotland leads the world. We have set up the Expert Commission on Energy Regulation, whose remit includes how an independent Scotland can promote fairer, more affordable energy prices, and the commission will be able to consider the feasibility of a freeze as part of its work."

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