First Minister's Questions: Politics inverted

Image copyright PA
Image caption Ms Sturgeon is reluctant to talk about indyref2, and Ms Davidson is reluctant to talk about Brexit

She talks, apparently, of nothing else. Independence, that is. It has become, we are told, an obsession. To the extent that she has become a one trick pony.

Of whom do we speak? Of Ruth Davidson, she who leads the Conservatives in Scotland. Or, more precisely, the caricature of RD as elegantly drawn by the first minister, she who leads the devolved bits of Scotland.

Thus is politics inverted. Or so we are led to believe. According to Ms Davidson, the FM now refuses to say anything about her key objective of Scottish independence.

According to Ms Sturgeon, the Scottish Tory leader now refuses to join the discourse about Brexit, seemingly fearful that she will be asked to adhere to her previous views (pro EU membership, then pro single market.)

Earlier this week, I was in attendance upon the FM at a wonderful event celebrating literacy among young folk. In attendance, literally, in that I was waiting to interview her about indyref2 and Brexit (you see, these obsessions can be catching.)

Seminal tome

While waiting, I was invited by teachers to chat with a few of the young pupils about their favourite books. The choice was gloriously eclectic and hugely encouraging.

I was then asked about my own favourite reading. These days, I would range widely from Welsh to Sir Walter. But, guessing that they meant when I was young, I tentatively offered Tom Sawyer and, above all, Alice in Wonderland.

One young child shyly confided that she too thrilled to Carroll's masterpiece. I thought of these exchanges when I observed FMQs today.

In the great work, the seminal tome of political analysis, we are told: "It's no use going back to yesterday. I was a different person then."

How politics has changed in the week since the UK election. As I have noted elsewhere, we have a prime minister who entered the joust seeking a landslide and exited without a majority at all. To her credit, she had the grace to joke about this when welcoming the returning Commons speaker.

But we also have a discourse which is, on the face of it, topsy-turvy. Dig a little further, however, and the changes make sense, as long as we factor in the altered context. Curiouser and curiouser.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Alice in Wonderland was Brian's favourite book as a child

Nicola Sturgeon does not want to answer questions about whether she will shelve indyref2. That is because she wants, literally, to keep her options open.

She wonders whether a referendum on independence, currently discounted by her rivals, might perhaps revive as a serious prospect if and when the present miasma clears. If, to be precise, the Brexit talks are under way and are not seen, generally, to be protecting Scotland's interests, however defined.

So she wants to consult. She wants to listen. Both laudable and understandable aims. Under pressure to pronounce, she says - with some evident, calendrical justice - that the more immediate challenge is to bring a Scottish dimension to the Brexit negotiations.

And after the consultation? Things might change but it still seems most likely that Ms Sturgeon will not want to shut down entirely the option of indyref2. Perhaps she might want to stretch the time frame although, to be frank, that was always linked to the conclusion of Brexit talks anyway.

Perhaps she might adapt a line from President Macron of France. Contemplating the EU, he told Theresa May: "La porte est toujours ouverte". Similarly, Ms Sturgeon does not want to slam the door shut entirely on indyref2.

So, the strategy for now is to say as little as possible about independence - and to depict her rivals as obsessing about an issue which has been and remains a fundamental principle for the SNP.

'Shower of charlatans'

Instead, Ms Sturgeon turns the attack upon the Tories, calling Ruth Davidson a "one trick pony" on the topic of independence.

And First Minister's Questions took on a new meaning today as the FM essayed a few posers of her own, aimed at Ms Davidson. What about Brexit? What about the single market? What about the customs union?

What about, retorted Ms Davidson, answering my questions about indyref2? The people, she argued, demonstrably did not want said plebiscite. It should be dumped.

In response, the FM constructed a taut syllogism of contempt. The Tories, she said, had followed the EU referendum with a "hard Brexit" offer and an "unnecessary" election.

They were, she opined charitably, a "shower of charlatans".

It was a day for side-stepping. Neither leader would answer the other's questions - which were, of course, designed to generate just such an outcome.

Towards the close of questions, Ms Sturgeon was asked whether civil servants under her control were still toiling over preparations for a possible referendum. She declined to say - and her advisers were, in similar fashion, strategically opaque when asked later by the wicked media.

And the others? Patrick Harvie of the Greens asked about fracking. Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that a final decision would emerge this year.

Labour's Kezia Dugdale asked about education. Not, it should be said, in terms which gave an A* to the Scottish Government.

That subject featured later when John Swinney set out his plans for reforming educational governance, giving more power to head teachers and schools.

Ah, but will it result in pupils being able to distinguish a raven from a writing desk?