How big is the pile of black gold? This was the substance of today’s FMQs as both Labour and Conservative leaders cornered the First Minister (FM) on Sir Ian Wood’s comments on North Sea oil reserves. With the FM previously praising the pre-eminent specialist on oil and gas, Sir Ian’s comments on the serious hit which dropping oil reserves would deliver made life difficult for the SNP leader.
What was more revealing today was the heightened level of coordination from the Unionist parties. The narrative, tone and rhetoric was sharp and precise ahead of Monday’s second televised debate. With Sir Ian’s warnings in hand, both Lamont and Davidson, sought to paint independence as a political project which paid no attention to the real future for Scotland’s people. More so, in preparation for Monday, the leaders singled out Salmond as a man without a plan, who ignored substantial arguments and did anything to keep the project going. A further effort to paint the FM as a man not to be trusted. Another hint for Monday was Lamont’s efforts to spin out the Plan B rhetoric outside currency – no Plan B for Europe, the NHS or oil, she said.
The FM noted Sir Ian’s comments and selected quotes which showed the strength of the sector for years to come, and the potential for discovering new fields which could deliver oil and gas after 2050. He made a strong case for what the resource meant to Scotland’s future, but relied too heavily on press cuttings, quotes and a blog from Professor Kemp. Coupled with Sir Ian’s reputation and plaudits from journalists spread across this morning’s papers, referencing selected quotes and opinion was never going to be enough.
As questions went on, Sir Ian’s oil comments were all but a distant memory for SNP members as they moved the debate onto the future of the NHS and the protection an independent Scotland could offer. He drew stronger cards with jibes that Scottish Labour didn’t have a Plan A for Scotland, let alone a Plan B and pointed at the Tories in Westminster for their privatisation project for the NHS. A stronger finish compared to a subdued and difficult start for the FM.