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Sketch: Fergus Ewing accused of looking like a suboptimal chicken

Credit: Iain Green

Sketch: Fergus Ewing accused of looking like a suboptimal chicken

It was a Wednesday afternoon in the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Tories’ unrelenting war against the SNP was continuing with Oliver Mundell calling Fergus Ewing a suboptimal chicken.

So, what is a suboptimal chicken, you ask? To understand that you first have to understand what an optimal chicken is. It is the ideal chicken, presumably. Or Oliver Mundell’s conception of an ideal chicken, anyway. It is a platonic ideal, but of poultry.

“Let us be clear,” Mundell had announced, somewhat dramatically, in what was meant to have been an attempt to address concerns that Brexit will lead to a huge drop in food quality. “If we are going to talk about low-standard produce, the only thing that Scottish farmers have to fear is the suboptimal chicken that is sitting in the cabinet secretary’s chair, refusing to take the big decisions that will allow our farmers to take advantage of the opportunities.”

The SNP didn’t like that, as you can imagine. It was a debate on farming and Brexit and John Swinney, in particular, had become enraged. Members screamed and the presiding officer tried to call for calm. Ewing, for his part, did a sort of shrug with his wings – sorry, hands – while the deputy first minister bellowed across the chamber.

The reaction was pretty understandable, in fairness, because Fergus Ewing looks nothing like a suboptimal chicken. If anything he looked more like a startled owl. And quite a successful one, if you think about it, given he is a rural economy secretary. Not many startled owls can say that.

Mundell, meanwhile, had apparently found himself thrown by his own comment. He stood swaying back and forward nervously while Ken Macintosh continued attempts to restore order. “The member used a metaphor, not a personal insult,” the presiding officer announced, though that only seemed to push Swinney further over the edge. It was quite an insulting metaphor. A weird one too. “We will remember that one!” he was shouting. “We will remember that when it is appropriate to use it against you!”

It was getting hysterical by this stage, but the education secretary raised an important point. They certainly could remember it and use it against him. They could call Oliver Mundell a suboptimal chicken all they liked, as long as it was a metaphor rather than an insult. They could all stand around calling each other suboptimal chickens all day long, if they wanted to. They could do it till the suboptimal chickens came home to roost. Suboptimally, presumably.

Still, Mundell looked vaguely upset, with the Dumfriesshire MSP claiming he wanted to get back to issues of substance. It seemed an odd move given the circumstances. Like someone who has thrown a dead cat onto the dinner table, then complained no one has tried the potatoes.

So what can you say? Well at least the party is finally starting to get some traction in its battle against the SNP, and it’s hard not to sense the hand of Douglas Ross in all this.

Just last week he was talking up his plans for fresh attacks on the SNP, promising “I’ll be unrelenting”, and now here we are, with Mundell pecking away at them, like some berserk, hormone-addicted rooster.

You can only assume they research and test this sort of messaging, such is the laser-like precision with which Scotland’s leading political players operate, though in this case it must have been a pretty surreal focus group. Douglas Ross sits, chain smoking at the head of the table, reading out a series of options to baffled members of the public in an effort to learn what would hit Ewing hardest. A suboptimal chicken? An out-of-sorts goose? A failed guinea fowl? The SNP will be cowering.

In fact up to that point the debate had been a largely technical one, with members naturally focusing heavily on questions over what happens to a chicken if you dip it in chlorine, while Emma Harper chose to branch out.

“The Conservatives laughed at me when I spoke about rat poo previously,” she complained, somewhat sadly, though she was of course correct. You can’t make a good point about rat poo in parliament without people laughing at you these days. But unfortunately Scottish politics was yet again denied the chance to hold a proper debate on rat faeces because Annabel Ewing wanted to raise a point of order.

So what would it be? Had there been a procedural failing? Was it something to do with food standards? Or Brexit?

“On a point of order, presiding officer. I was not able to vote. I would have voted no, not least because of the language that Mr Mundell used against my brother in calling him a suboptimal chlorinated chicken.”

Yes, it was the chicken again. “My 12-year-old niece would be hugely unimpressed with Mr Mundell,” she added.

In fairness, Mundell hadn’t actually used the word chlorinated – the chicken may have been organic, despite its other failings. But, that aside, Ewing’s niece probably would be pretty unimpressed with Mundell. So what would a 12-year-old have called the cabinet secretary? The Scottish Tories watched on, desperate for ideas.

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