First Minister Humza Yousaf, Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone, Conservative leader Douglas Ross and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar.

By Bill Heaney

The gloves were definitely off when Humza Yousaf and Anas Sarwar battled it out toe to toe at First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliament yesterday.
Yousaf shook off the widespread criticism of how useless he was and parried blow after blow from Sarwar, including one significantly snide low blow — “I know that the First Minister is still trying to find his feet and that the job can be quite confusing for him.”
Yousaf had just seen off the man in the blue corner, Douglas Ross, who had been trying in vain to set him up for a sucker punch on the question of the proposed National Care Service.
The Tory leader asked him : “The previous estimate of the costs for the centralised care service was £1.3 billion. However, after that figure came out, Audit Scotland said that ‘it is likely that the overall cost of the measures will be significantly above the amounts currently assessed’. 
“Will the First Minister tell us now how much the service will really cost Scottish taxpayers?”
Humza Yousaf used a neat piece of political footwork to get out of that one: “First and foremost, let us not forget why we have introduced the national care service legislation: it is to end the postcode lottery of inconsistency of care that we all accept exists up and down the country.
“We want to introduce a system that ensures that we put fair work principles and people who need care at the very heart of the national care service.

“I point out to Douglas Ross that the Opposition, quite rightly, asked the Scottish Government to ensure that we engaged with local authorities and our trade union colleagues …”

The ringside crowd rose to their feet as one and referee Alison Johnstone, the presiding officer, was forced to intervene before Yousaf, in the tartan shorts, hit him with this uppercut: “It is hardly a surprise that the Tories groan when I mention fair work principles and working with trade union colleagues.

“Douglas Ross was one of the first to call for us to pause the national care service legislation so that we could engage with local government and trade unions. We are doing so in the hope of finding a level of compromise on the legislation that will allow us to proceed with it with an element of consensus.

“What that compromise is will then determine whether there will be any changes to the financial memorandum. Once we have had that intensive engagement over the course of the summer we will return to Parliament and ensure that a revised financial memorandum is published.”

Douglas Ross’s supporters were back on their feet again when he said: “The muted applause from SNP members has not got any better since last week. It is no wonder, because the answers have not got any better, either.

“The First Minister suggests that there might be additional costs, whereas Audit Scotland was very clear that the figure of £1.3 billion will not be the final cost—it will be higher. From that feeble answer, which did not address the point, it turns out that the First Minister has no idea what it will be.

“The First Minister is throwing public money away when front-line social care services are in desperate need of more funding. The SNP Government could be investing to improve local care services; instead, it is creating a bureaucratic nightmare, and it wants a blank cheque to enable it to do so. It has already wasted £14 million on the plans and spent £1.9 million on consultants.

“However, the plans are not advancing, there are no signs of progress and the legislation has been repeatedly delayed. Is the First Minister paying consultants a fortune [£2 million?] to tell him what everyone else knows—that his plans are woeful and will not work?”

This blistering bout during which Yousaf floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee then became like one of those nose to nose growling greetings between heavyweights before a championship fight. The ad hominem comments started to fly then.

The First Minister gave Ross a dig in the ribs: “Those are not attacks on policy or substance, but personal attacks from the man who is, of course, the least popular elected politician on these islands by any poll estimation.”

The referee had to step in again before Yousaf added: “The best retort that Douglas Ross has is that I am catching him up, but he is still the most unpopular leader and elected politician in this country by a country mile.

On consultancy spending, which is an important point, the Scottish Government and our officials are absolutely focused on making the national care service work, but it is important that we bring in the additional technical and specialist expertise that allows us to ensure that we make progress on the legislation.

On the question on finances around the national care service, which is a very legitimate question, we will, as I have said, engage with trade unions and local government, and when we reach a compromise—as I hope that we will—on the national care service, we will come back with a revised financial memorandum.”

Does that amount to a promise of a return fight then?

This was where Anas Sarwar stepped through the ropes and into the ring. He said: “It has just been announced that interest rates will go up again, which will mean higher mortgages.

“That is all because of Tory economic chaos. That comes in the same week that the Scottish National Party launched its campaign for another Tory Government.  Therefore, I ask the First Minister to put aside his party’s self-interest and be honest.”

The red faced Presiding Officer called out:  “Members!”

Order was then restored before Anas Sarwar told her: “SNP members do not like the truth, Presiding Officer. I ask the First Minister to put aside his party’s self-interest and be honest. What is better for Scotland: a Labour Government or a Tory Government?”

First Minister Humza Yousaf jabbed back with a real crowd pleaser for the SNP benches — “What is best for Scotland is independence, of course, because then we will have the powers in our own hands.”

He added: “It is exceptionally brave of Anas Sarwar to go on that topic, this week of all weeks, because what we have with the Labour Party’s Keir Starmer is someone who has refused to reverse every single measure of Tory austerity.

“What we have with Keir Starmer is an individual who has reneged on his promise to abolish tuition fees for students in England and who, just yesterday, refused to repeal cruel Tory legislation such as the Illegal Migration Bill.

“Scotland does not need cruel, harmful policies imposed on it, whether that is done by a politician who wears a blue tie or a politician who wears a red tie. What Scotland needs is the full powers of an independent nation, so that we can chart our own course and get out of this unequal and broken union.”

After she again pleaded with the Members to behave themselves, the Presiding Officer called on the combatants to return to their corners. She said: “We have visitors, who have gathered to hear the questions and answers, and we have people tuned in across the nation, who are also keen to do so. Although I appreciate members’ passion and interest, I would be grateful if we could try to behave ourselves with decorum.”

Anas Sarwar said: “I think that you should be softer with SNP members, Presiding Officer—it is the first time that they have shown [any sign of] life in weeks. We should appreciate the SNP back benchers. Is it not amazing that they have shown life when it comes to attacking the Labour Party?

“We have a governing party that is under investigation by the police; sexual misconduct allegations; whistleblowers being silenced; and division on the back benches. There is only one party that looks like the Tories, and it is not us—it is the SNP.

“The First Minister is so out of touch that he insults the intelligence of people across Scotland. Labour would deliver a new deal for working people and scrap the Tory anti-trade union laws. Labour would deliver a publicly owned energy company, which the SNP promised but has failed to deliver. Labour would make Scotland a research and development powerhouse, rather than imposing SNP cuts on universities. Labour would bring down people’s bills with a proper windfall tax, which the SNP and the Tories do not support. That is the change that Scotland needs.

“I know that the First Minister is still trying to find his feet and that the job can be quite confusing for him. Is it not the case that he prefers a Tory Government, because it is cover for his own incompetence?”

I couldn’t close this Notebook without putting in a word for myself and the fact I was banned by the SNP from asking questions at West Dunbartonshire Council because of alleged bad behaviour of which I was never guilty. Politicians are well able to insult each other without my assistance. The Church Street mafia, now run by the Labour Party, should grow up. I’ll  close the Notebook on that one. See you at the return fight. Editor

Leave a Reply