FMQs began this week with a tribute to the editor of the Times in Scotland, Angus Macleod, who passed away this week.
The opening of questions was unusually interrupted by the barks from a guide dog. Perhaps, Johann Lamont should have asked the highly trained canine assistant for help in navigating FMQs as she led on the decision by the Scottish Government to award the next ScotRail franchise contract to Dutch firm Abellio. Something he defended with consummate ease.
Johann Lamont directly asked the FM if this new contract would see Scottish tax and fare payers pay more for their train service. Labour has been very critical of the decision to award ScotRail to a state owned rail company in absence of a Scottish public sector bid. Labour had argued for the bidding process to be postponed in the hope that devolved powers for rail franchising would allow a public sector bid from Scotland to come forward.
The FM was particularly strong in his response, outlining the positives of the bid, without actually answering the question. The weakness in the Labour argument is that they don’t ask or presumably want to admit, the consequences of halting the bidding process. To halt the bid would involve paying compensation to bidders, as seen in the West Coast franchise debacle, and the need to extend First’s contract for an indefinite period until any new powers over the railways are granted. This could cost millions, but that price is seemingly worth paying to bring the railways back into Scottish public ownership according to the Labour party.
Ruth Davidson changed the subject entirely and continued her tit-for-tat with the FM on health spending statistics. The Conservative leader has apparently triple checked her understanding of the numbers and pressed the FM to come clean on her understanding that health spending has dropped 1.2% in real terms and not risen by the 4% or so claimed by the government. Ruth has the IFS and SPICE on her side, however, the FM managed to pluck the consequences of NPD modelling into the equation to prove everybody wrong. How convenient, but does anyone have the inclination or brains to check…I doubt it.
Overall another victory for the FM. Johann Lamont is still trying to paint the FM as a lame duck leader, ‘seeping power’, but she won’t succeed in doing so unless the substance of Labour’s arguments improve. One wonders if she will fare better once Nicola Sturgeon is in post.