FMQs: Sounding a mite exasperated

Holyrood chamber
Image caption Nicola Sturgeon was unimpressed by the opposition's questioning

Perhaps it was the proximity of the Holyrood elections - 49 days to polling and counting.

Perhaps it was the iterative nature of Kezia Dugdale's questions, repeated not once, not twice, not thrice but….what comes next? Quice?

Whatever the provocation, Nicola Sturgeon seemed just a mite exasperated during questions at Holyrood today.

She questioned the auditory capacity of a fellow MSP - not once, but…..oh, don't start that again, skip the loop.

Then there was her response to the token opening question posed by Ruth Davidson.

Tube of Smarties

You know the sort of thing. "When will you next meet the Tsar of all the Russias?" Thus allowing a supplementary: "When you encounter the Tsar, will you explain why hospital waiting times in Auchtermuchty have shown such pitiful variation?"

Ms Davidson followed her usual format. When would the FM next meet the Secretary of State for Scotland? Ms Sturgeon positively barked: "Tonight!"

Not looking forward to the evening, eh, Nicola? Not, I would guess, a trip to the theatre to see Mary Poppins. Nor, from the sound of it, a chatty evening at home with a tube of Smarties and the latest box set of Borgen.

Ruth Davidson looked temporarily taken aback. Still, she rallied to ask the FM about tax. The sign at Scotland's border, she said, should not read "Higher Taxes Now".

What did she want instead? "There be dragons?" "United for the Cup?"

No, it seems she wanted something along the lines of: "Scotland will continue to offer broad equivalence to the fiscal structure as set out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Rt Hon George 'Gideon' Oliver Osborne MP."

Image caption Ruth Davidson has warned about the potential dangers of Scottish tax rates being higher in Scotland than in England

Ms Davidson generally renders that as "you won't pay more in Scotland than in England." Ms Sturgeon chose to depict it as pusillanimity over the new tax powers.

Earlier, though, she had faced broadly the same charge herself, from Labour's Kezia Dugdale. Ms Dugdale noted that up with the Chancellor's tax plans, Labour would not put. Would the FM say the same?

Then she added the challenge: "Yes or No". There is nothing more calculated to rile a nuanced politician. Actually, catching your hand in the car door comes close. As does learning that the chippie has run out of white pudding. But still the "Yes or No" dichotomy tends to irk.

Next week

It irked sufficiently on this occasion that the FM bluntly advised her interrogator to "dispense with the mock indignation."

Simply then drily then irritably then angrily, Ms Sturgeon said again….and again…and (see above) that she would set out the detail of her tax plans early next week.

But she said, again repeatedly, that she wasn't a fan of the Chancellor's scheme. And thus wouldn't do it.

So what might we expect from the Scottish government - or, being pedantic, the SNP, given that we are notably close to an election?

Image caption Ms Dugdale said her party was opposed to the Chancellor's income tax plans

Not an increase in the standard rate. Ms Sturgeon has decried that as penalising the poor, even with Labour's proposed rebate (which the FM says is useless……no, it isn't…..yes it is…no it…). So that's a non-starter.

She told me last week in a pre-conference interview that she was pretty sceptical about increasing the very top rate from 45p to 50p (for those earning more than £150k).

That was because it raised relatively little in Scotland and top earners tended to be flexible. They could declare their income elsewhere, dodging that extra top rate - and depriving Scotland of all their tax contribution, not just a portion.

Politically tempting

So it seems that is unlikely - even although it must be politically tempting to match Labour's top rate rhetoric.

In the same interview with me, she acknowledged that it would be an option to decline to apply an increase in the 40p threshold to Scotland.

So that looks decidedly in prospect. Either leaving the threshold alone or perhaps increasing it in line with CPI inflation - which would be a tiny increase, thus dispensing with a sizeable portion of the accompanying tax cut.

People in Scotland would thus pay more than people elsewhere in the UK - but only if they were on the upper rate, as redefined for Scotland alone.

For the Liberal Democrats, Liam McArthur questioned how the FM intended to maintain services such as education while eschewing the 1p overall tax rise.

Plainly, Mr McArthur was seeking to depict himself as thinking of Our Children's Children's Children. Ms Sturgeon appeared to favour another Moody Blues album. A Question of Balance.

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