SPIN DOCTORS: IT TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE

OPINION:

Nicola Sturgeon is no Mother Christmas, says Brian Monteith

If there is one political certainty I would bet my house on, it’s that when politicians are in serious trouble they will suddenly make a major announcement to push the damaging story off the news agenda.

There is no better exponent of this trait than the media operation of Nicola Sturgeon and her Scottish government, which has nearly 40 media managers of one sort or another at its disposal. Allegra Stratton, eat your heart out.

It is rare for Scotland’s first minister to be put on the spot during media interviews. First, she is mostly treated with kid gloves by Scottish journalists who, with only a few exceptions, are only too delighted to report some sucker punches to her opponents rather than hold her to account for the decisions she is responsible for.

Andrew Neil when he was at the BBC and Ciaran Jenkins of Channel 4 are exceptions, but most others tend to start with a few seemingly hard questions but quickly turn to what Sturgeon has to say about her critics. The moment for a persistent grilling is quickly lost in the fog of war.

Until Sunday past, I considered my fellow Scot Andrew Marr to be in that ineffectual category. But last weekend he was all of a sudden a tiger, a shark and a vulture all rolled into one. Not only did he tear into Sturgeon, he then cut her up and came back to feed on the carcass.

This was not “gotcha” questioning with one killer blow, but rather persistent interrogation on a number of issues.

And that was just the start. The facts Marr put up on screen about Covid revealed the truth many of us have been trying to impart: that Scotland’s death rate for such a small, scarcely populated nation is appalling (third worst in the world, in fact) and over the last month has sadly overtaken even England’s.

Without any shame, Sturgeon pleaded that making comparisons was in no one’s interests, brazenly ignoring that she herself was the one who weaponised the stats when they were kinder to her.

In short, Marr’s interview became the story for the rest of the day and into the Monday morning. Having scented blood, other journalists soon arrived like Piranhas to feast on the flailing Sturgeon.

Sturgeon announced that the Scottish government was going to give all NHS and public sector care workers a £500 bonus as a thank you for all their dedication and self-sacrifice. She then appealed for the UK Prime Minister to give an exemption to the resulting tax liability so workers would receive the full amount in their take-home pay.

At a stroke we had Mother Christmas being munificent with (English) taxpayers’ money, while creating a fresh Nationalist grievance that put Boris and Rishi in a bad Scrooge-like light.

Needless to say the media focus turned to Sturgeon’s announcement, and the memory of being monstered by Marr was forgotten.

But could the move be too clever by half? The truth is that while Scottish income tax revenue is collected by HMRC, it is all paid over to the Scottish government. There is no need for an exemption for this bonus — all that is required is for the Sturgeon to gross up the payment to cover the tax.

By Tuesday, the neutral Fraser Allander Institute was pronouncing grossing-up as the most efficient and least expensive way to administer the payment. The same institute had only last week shown that over £1bn of UK government relief funding for business had not yet left the Scottish government’s ledgers. Is it now being used as a slush fund to bribe voters to return Sturgeon to power in the May elections?

That’s politics — and as we all know, politics is a dirty game. But for Sturgeon to create such division — between NHS staff, including those on very high consultant salaries, receiving the bonus and other key workers getting no reward, and between her spurious generosity and Downing Street’s apparent parsimony — illustrates the nastier side of her character. Harmony is not in her vocabulary.

Marr’s mauling may now be a memory, but a new more damaging narrative is now appearing. There’s no such thing as Mother Christmas.

  • City A.M.’s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M. Brian Monteith is a PR man, who has been a member of the Scottish and European parliaments

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