FMQs: An occasion for cheerleaders and inquisitors

Nicola Sturgeon with Christine Grahame in the background
Image caption SNP MSP Christine Grahame always sits behind Nicola Sturgeon during First Minister;s Questions

Briefly bereft of Christmas entertainment, my family and I opted to dip into the televisual back catalogue. As fans of Still Game, we chose its progenitor, Chewin' the Fat.

Grand stuff, generally. I particularly enjoyed the skit known as Translating for the Neds in which an ineffably posh newsreader delivers the news, with a rather rougher figure over his shoulder rendering the announcements into demotic speech.

Today at Holyrood we had something faintly comparable. Translating for the Nats. The figure perched just over Nicola Sturgeon's shoulder was Christine Grahame.

Now, let us get one thing absolutely, precisely, crystal clear.

I am not, repeat not, repeat not, making any physical comparison whatsoever between the character deftly portrayed by Ford Kiernan and the estimable MSP for Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale.

Ms Grahame is a model of elegance while Mr Kiernan's alter ego is……ok, Brian, enough, leave it at that.

No, I am talking merely about Ms Grahame's reactive demeanour during questions to the First Minister. If Nicola Sturgeon looked mildly upset at some comment from the opposition, then Ms Grahame amplified this facially into outrage and indignation.

To the contrary, if the FM made a point which she plainly regarded as a winner, then Ms Grahame could be counted upon to lead the troops in ecstatic applause.

To be entirely fair, Ms Grahame was far from the only Nationalist MSP pursuing such practices. However, it fell to her to be pictured on the telly in close proximity to the FM. I think they call it doughnutting.

Tough questions on health

But why was such amplification required? Because Ms Sturgeon was facing some notably tough questions on the subject of health provision in Scotland.

The immediate topic was trauma centres.

To recap, such centres already exist; the Scottish Government promised to upgrade and integrate four of them - Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen; clinicians suggested that only two might be better, in the central belt.

The SG duly rethought and re-concluded that four was the berries; they went ahead with four, albeit on a deferred timetable which means they will not be fully operational in their new form for up to three years.

Ruth Davidson for the Tories condemned the delay and demanded a Parliamentary statement. Kezia Dugdale for Labour escalated the issue still further: lives would be put at risk. (Ms Grahame looked grimly furious.)

Ms Sturgeon gave the detailed explanation set out above, noting that an additional £5m is to be provided to deliver the project. (Ms Grahame looked defiantly justified.)

Image caption At First Minister's Questions, Conservative MSP Brain Whittle raised the issue of investment in sport

There was more. Ms Davidson referred to reports of a back-up team being brought in from - pause for sharp intake of breath - England to support the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow.

To listen to the Tory leader, you would have thought the squad arriving was a blend of the A-Team and the Green Lantern.

Ms Sturgeon's version was that a couple of chums from the north of England had been asked to join a support initiative prepared and funded by - further pause - the Scottish government.

Ms Davidson complained of lack of transparency. Ms Sturgeon said she was entirely open about one thing - that health care provision was markedly better in Scotland than in England. Under the Tories. (Ms Grahame looked…..ok, you've got the concept by now.)

We then moved into a different dimension - with questions from Patrick Harvie of the Greens and Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats.

By contrast with the excoriating rhetoric aimed at Mss Davidson and Dugdale, Mr Harvie and Mr Rennie received emollient treatment.

Why? One word: budget. Ms Sturgeon knows there is zero chance of the Tories or Labour backing the SG budget. Which leaves the Greens and the LibDems. And today we got - in part, at least - their shopping lists.

Mr Harvie - or Patrick, as the FM viewed him today - asked the SG to mitigate the impact of UK benefit cuts, perhaps by topping up child benefit.

Listening to the smaller parties

Interesting idea, said the FM. We'll look at that as part of wider conversations over the budget.

Then cue Willie. He wanted additional investment in education. (Clue: that was the core demand in the Lib Dem Holyrood manifesto.)

Ms Sturgeon chided him briefly. She had thought his main focus now was upon mental health. But it was a very gentle, what-are-you-like rebuke. His education proposals would also be thoroughly studied.

To be entirely fair, this is perfectly sensible politics on the part of the FM. Scotland must have a budget and the SNP need votes.

Back finally to Christine Grahame. As noted earlier, she played the role today of an honourably supportive claque. But the redoubtable Ms Grahame is very much her own woman, as she proved towards the close of FMQs.

The topic was sport. Initiated by the medal-winning athlete Brian "One Shoe" Whittle. One Shoe urged investment in sport and cited the BBC investigation which disclosed that athletic participation was perhaps not as widespread as might be desired.

Ms Sturgeon offered supportive comments. Did Ms Grahame applaud? She did not. Rather, she disagreed with the FM and warned that cash for elite sport seldom trickled down into broader involvement.

If discomfited, Ms Sturgeon recovered well. It was all, she said, a question of balance. (Other Moody Blues albums are available.)