Mojo risin' at First Minister's Questions?

UK in coins
Image caption The welfare set-up formed part of the questioning on how independence would work

Johann Lamont went straight for the question which has troubled the nation. Well, part of the nation. OK, that part of the nation which occupies the Labour floor at Holyrood. Some of them, anyway.

And the question? Has the First Minister lost his mojo?

Whenever I hear the word "mojo" - and I confess that is not as frequently these days as in times past - I am inclined to think of The Doors, the popular beat combo to whom I had a youthful adherence.

But we should not perhaps pursue that avenue too closely. On this occasion, Ms Lamont was referring to the First Minister's motivational spirit, his enthusiasm for independence.

First, she said, he wanted to keep the Queen. Then sterling. Then the Bank of England. Now Scottish Ministers accepted an independent Scotland might have to retain cross-border administration of the welfare system, at least for an interim period.

That, according to Ms Lamont, would forestall any welfare reform in that independent Scotland. Mr Salmond, you will be astonished to learn, was not of that view.

There was no reason, he said, why an interim shared administration required identical policies. Variation could be accommodated.

And, his spirit palpably rising, that meant that an independent Scottish government would scrap the so-called bedroom tax - "in the first year" - and would also prevent Labour from introducing the notion of regionally varied benefits.

This display of First Ministerial mojo was too much for Ms Lamont. She rebutted the SNP version of Labour's policy. That was not, she averred, what the Shadow Chancellor had said at all.

At this point, the enthused SNP backbenches missed an obvious opportunity. Taking their cue from Michael Heseltine, they might simply have chanted the Shadow Chancellor's surname.

Instead, they growled in disquiet. Ed Balls had proposed the following:

  • A fair cap on household benefits - not one that costs more than it saves, and which takes account of housing costs in different parts of the country - with an independent body, like the Low Pay Commission, advising on whether the cap should be higher in high-cost housing areas like London, but potentially lower in other parts of the country

Mr Salmond persisted with his attack. Ms Lamont retorted that his claims were ludicrous, "nonsense on stilts". Then, delivering the mojo punchline, she suggested that the Nationalists might care to form a breakaway group, "SNP for Independence".

Labour chortled and gestured. Nationalists scoffed and gestured. As is customary with such rhetorical exchanges, there is substance in there somewhere. If you look really closely.

Some Nationalist strategists use subtle phraseology when describing the authentic nature of the offer. Listen carefully and you may occasionally hear the word "confederal" used to describe the relationship which would exist between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK.

I even heard one contrasting such confederalism with "separation", thus simultaneously deploying, isolating and disdaining the term pejoratively used by those who promote the Union.

I would not want to over-emphasise these matters but there are one or two in the pro-independence camp who would prefer to set out the nature of the offer more plainly and bluntly, rather than arriving at it via an accumulation of policy statements. However, that may be for the future.

Health and crime

For now, Mr Salmond overcame the slight on his mojo, rallying to face further questions from Ruth Davidson of the Conservatives and Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats.

Ms Davidson highlighted a report by my esteemed colleague Eleanor Bradford to the effect that some families in Scotland may be facing unwarranted costs for nursing home provision when they should have received NHS funding under continuing health care provision.

The Tory leader noted that provision was apparently more generous in England - and demanded a Scottish government audit of the issue. Without directly conceding that, Mr Salmond spelled out in detail the system for assessing need - but promised action on any cases where provision fell short.

Then to Willie Rennie. The LibDem leader has maintained a consistent stance on the single police force, which is now with us. He is agin it.

And he felt his fears had been justified by the tardy disclosure that the chief executive of the Scottish Police Authority is stepping down, along with two other executives. Mr Rennie discerned chaos, he sniffed the air and detected the acrid stench of a cover-up.

However, no such whiff assailed the First Ministerial nostrils. Such matters, he said, were being effectively handled by the autonomous authority, as was proper. Voters, he suggested, cared more about active policing - which had produced record low crime rates.

And that was it. Except for a final word, as a point of order, from Margo MacDonald, the quintessence of political experience. Speaking for the nation, she queried: was "mojo" proper parliamentary language?

Break on through, Margo, break on through.

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