Sketch: John Swinney's hunting instinct
In some ways, I’m impressed by John Swinney’s restraint. The day after the publication of Sue Gray’s report, he managed to hold off mentioning Boris Johnson for a whopping 18 minutes at First Minister’s Questions.
He almost let loose at 12:12, making reference to his “obligation under the ministerial code of conduct to give truthful answers to parliament”. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.
But he managed to fight his animal instinct for a little while longer. That was not the moment. The minutes ticked by, with Swinney carefully watching his prey, like a tiger lurking in the long grass, pretending not to be taking the measure of the gazelle. But like anyone watching an Attenborough documentary, we all knew what was coming.
Swinney took a few careful steps back, sniffed the air. “I suspect that the degree of agitation from Mr Ross today is an indication of the depth of the trouble that he is in,” said Swinney, breezily playing with his food.
“I do not think that anything that I say today will satisfy Mr Ross. He is going to doubt what I say and question my integrity. I am giving parliament honest answers,” Swinney dips low, tensing his muscles.
Then… POUNCE. “That’s more than can be said for the Prime Minister Boris Johnson that Douglas Ross is prepared to support.” Takedown. Douglas Ross never had a chance, not with the permanent chafing of an incompetent boss slowing down any progress he might like to make.
The whole spectacle felt all the more brutal because Ross at first seemed to think he was the hunter rather than the hunted. With Nicola Sturgeon out for the count due to Covid, Ross had (or at least felt he had) a clear run at her deputy over the ferry fiasco.
Grinning like a cheeky schoolboy – though probably thinking he looked more like a hyena on the prowl – Ross confidently rose and told the room: “Every time that we have asked for a statement, every SNP backbencher and John Swinney have voted against him coming to the parliament. However, today, he cannot avoid the questions to which islanders and Scottish taxpayers need answers.”
He seemed to have the upper hand when Swinney defended his engagement with parliament. “I gave a statement earlier this week, I answered questions last week and I handled a bill the week before,” the DFM said – ignoring the fact that none of those things were about ferries.
Sensing an area of weakness, Humza Yousaf was on hand to play the role Swinney usually plays for Sturgeon – chief heckler. Only he’s not particularly good at it, nonsensically repeating “how many jobs have you got, Douglas?” four or five times.
And when Swinney later insisted that the “government was taking action to deliver ferries for the island communities that require them”, Ross was the cat that got the cream given the, erm, lack of actual, physical ferries.
The DFM then went on to suggest Ross was “in trouble” because he had the gall to raise a second fiasco overseen by the government – the poor train service. It’s a bad sign “when a political leader changes the topic,” argued Swinney, ignoring the fact that trains and ferries sit under that increasingly leaky but same umbrella topic of ‘transport’.
“Try answering the question,” Ross shouted. But of course Swinney was just biding his time, waiting to pull out the trump card always available to the SNP. They might be failing but at least they aren’t as bad as Boris.
By Swinney’s own measure, Anas Sarwar had a better time of it. The Labour leader asked about the non-existent replacement bus service while the railways were restricted. The DFM did not like that topic, and instead switched to another: Scottish child payment and “other measures” to support people with the cost-of-living – absolutely nothing to do with trains.
On that measure, would Swinney say he himself was “in trouble”?
Probably not. The temporary ScotRail timetable was merely to give commuters “certainty”, he said. Aye – certainty that they cannot use the train.
Things were all getting a bit rowdy in the chamber after that exchange, but thankfully the dulcet towns of Graeme Dey calmed things down. He, of course, took the wise decision to flee the transport portfolio before all of this kicked off. It wasn’t his mess; he’d be damned if he was clearing it up.
But the chamber only stayed calm until Ariane Burgess, the backbench Green MSP tasked with throwing the softball question that week, asked what the government was doing to “celebrate” Scottish Bus Week. Unfortunate, given what Sarwar had just been asking about.
Thankfully, Hecklin’ Humza was once again on hand to help. “Free bus travel for under 22s,” he yelled. Several times. If I had a bus or train for every time Yousaf repeated himself – well, I might actually be able to get to work on time.