Johann Lamont, Scottish Labour Leader, went in to bat at First Minister’s Questions this afternoon, well armed with assured facts on the funding of Scotland’s colleges.
She also went in hard on the performance of Education Secretary, Michael Russell, Argyll and Bute’s MSP, whose contradictory statements to the Scottish Parliament on colleges funding made it certain that he had misled it on one of two occasions. She used this contradiction to say that ‘Now even Mike Russell doesn’t believe Mike Russell.’
In quoting verbatim Mr Russell’s two differing statements, Johann Lamond made a witty remark that Kirk Ramsay, the recent former Chair of Stow College, will appreciate, She pointed out how valuable it was that each of these statements by Mr Russell to the chamber had been recorded.
The First Minister did his usual shouty, sneery, folksy-with-menace, stomach-out wafflefest in defence of Mr Russell who, seated nearby, looked more than a little astray.
Johann Lamont effectively led the First Minister across the top of a heffalump pit – and down he went.
Insisting that the figures he used to rebut Ms Lamont’s claims that funding figures given to the chamber had not been misleading, Mr Salmond has had to go back to the parliament and apologise because they were.
During the crossfire of question and answer – and it gets daily more obvious how often the FM is busking – Johann Lamont had advised the First Minister of the folly of wasting his own credibility to defend a minister who had lost his own.
In this she was referring to the hames the education sector is beginning to look like under Mr Russell and, specifically, to his hysterical public harrying to resignation of Kirk Ramsay of Stow College for having the temerity to record ‘secretly’ [actually in full view of the man himself] Mr Russell’s words at a meeting with around 80 senior figures from the colleges sector.
In the light of events just about to unfold, the First Minister would have benefited from taking the Labour Leader’s advice.
Throughout the Lamont onslaught, Mr Russell, mouth dropping open miming laughter, kept nodding on repeat like a toy dog in the back window of a retro-kitsch car – while the First Minister’s jowls settled determinedly around his collar.
At 5.00pm, a curt and deflated First Minister returned to the chamber and made the briefest of apologies for having misled its members in the figures he had just given. He had wrongly insisted that college funding was increasing where it is, as Ms Lamont said, decreasing.
He also said that Mr Russell would write to Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick, offering his own apology in relation to the same matter.
Where they stand now
This was an unedifying session, brightened only by the improvement to proceeding as both Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson focus better on the value of substance, command of the facts and begin to assert those values against the First Minister’s increasingly tedious and distastefully patronising bombast.
Today Johann Lamont was right on the facts and she was right on the First Minister’s judgment on Mr Russell’s reliability in command of his post.
Mr Russell has a record of failure at Environment and at Education – and Scotland is still waiting for the much delayed report of the Commission he set up on the Delivery of Rural Education. It had better be good. It may not, of course, come until after 2014.
Russell would be better placed at Culture, which he occupied briefly, with promise and which is suited to his thespian abilities.
The First Minister is now looking seriously damaged in public credibility.
He suffered the humiliating revelation that he had not even asked for legal advice on Scottish membership of the EU, when he had declared on national television that he actually had this advice.
Now he has had to return to the chamber to apologise for having misled it – after a demand by the Labour group that he go away to check his facts and come back and admit to having misled it. This he had to do.
Johann Lamont made a serious point the SNP would be wise at attend to, in spite of the First Minster’s easy derision.
She said the SNP backbenchers would do well to ask the hard questions themselves rather than leave them to her.
Was that a Gloucester Two Spot that just flew past the window?
Note: See FMQ session here.