This was first posted on Facebook on 23rd March 2021, with support from my Ko-Fi network.
A few things that occur to me after listening to the no-confidence vote debate in the Scottish Parliament this afternoon. (Video at link: it took less than an hour.)
Ruth Davidson opened the debate with what would likely have sounded like a very good speech against corruption and misleading Parliament, if not for one thing. Well, a few things.
Ruth Davidson was the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, 4th November 2011 to 29th August 2019. She was an outspoken critic of Brexit, and she also made clear she didn’t support Boris Johnson. Johnson was elected leader on the Conservative Party on 23rd July, and Ruth Davidson announced her resignation as leader of the Scottish Tories more or less on the spot, as I recall.
Ruth Davidson is an able politician and a decent public speaker who, I had noticed, was quite capable of being an amusing person when not required to speak according to the party line – but pretty much whenever she was in public, she spoke according to the party line. She was, I’d thought, intelligent enough to realise that she had better stay in Scotland rather than – as many able Scottish Tories do – make a play for a safe seat down south. When she resigned, I thought she was proving that she did, for a Tory, have principles – she would not lead the Scottish Tories and speak according to party line when the new party line was pro-Brexit and pro-Boris.
I was wrong. The new leader of the Scottish Conservatives is Douglas Ross, a MP who can’t speak in the Scottish Parliament; Jackson Carlaw replaced Davidson on the front bench (the Tories are the main Opposition Party in Holyrood) and Carlaw wasn’t nearly as good, and Ross’s tweets from the sidelines weren’t very effective, especially as Ross was voting for policies at Westminster that were far worse than those he was officially supposed to be opposing in Holyrood.
It was quite evident that to make any showing at all in the May elections, the Scottish Tories needed Ruth Davidson back. So Boris Johnson offered Ruth Davidson a life peerage in the Birthday Honours – she’ll become Baroness Davidson on 6th May or soon after – and Davidson decided to forgo any principled opposition to Boris Johnson or Brexit, and return to the front bench from August 2020 to May 2021. During which time, with her eyes on the ermine, she has obediently spoken not a word against Brexit, or against the border in the Irish Sea she once said she’d resign over, or against Boris Johnson.
So her speech today in which she tried to claim the moral high ground fell rather flatter than flat, as did the speech Liz Smith made closing the debate for the Tories.
Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney both spoke well, and with the confidence of the leader and deputy leader of a party who is looking to another five years in government – the latest poll today showed the SNP gaining a majority, 65 seats (with 10 Green MSPs, a controlling majority for independence) and who can be sure that neither the committee appointed to investigate the harassment process, nor the independent advisor on the Ministerial Code, found any solid reason why either of them should resign and therefore neither of them will lose a vote of no confidence.
What I noticed about the Labour speakers – espcially Anas Sarwar, the new leader, and Jackie Baillie, who sat on the committee – was that both of them were very reluctant to have the committee’s leaks criticised. (Baillie has since said she thinks the leaks should be investigated.) Anas Sarwar refused to vote with the Tories, but said he didn’t really have confidence in Nicola Sturgeon either. He claimed that any criticism of the comittee was undermining its work.
There is a problem there. The committee was appointed to investigate the harassment process and how it let down the women concerned. The committee instead (at least the Labour, Tories, and LibDems) seems to have regarded itself as a body that could force Nicola Sturgeon to resign. And at least one MSP on the committee, Labour, LibDem, or Tory, was leaking like a sieve – including direct quotes from the first two women to come forward with complaints against Alex Salmond, who had been promised their testimony would be completely confidential – one committee MSP leaked what purports to be direct quotes from those two women to the Sunday Times last weekend.
Notably, neither Anas Sarwar nor Ruth Davidson criticised the leaks, and nor did Willie Rennie. I would say by that none of the party leaders – except for Nicola Sturgeon, who is likely fairly sure it wasn’t a SNP MSP trying to stab her in the back, and except for Patrick Harvie, because technically there wasn’t a Green MSP on the committee and the Independent who was there was Andy Wightman, and Wightman may be wrong-headed about trans issues but he is absolutely stiff with personal integrity: he is close to the last MSP I can imagine ever leaking material like that to a Murdoch journalist. If Sarwar or Rennie or Davidson were equally sure of their MSPs on the committee, they didn’t show it.
Patrick Harvie was therefore free to make a barnstormer of a speech in which he told Parliament that whichever of the MSPs it was who had leaked that confidential material, they weren’t fit to be in Parliament and they shouldn’t be candidates in the May elections, and he hoped their party leaders would see to it that they weren’t. He also pointed out that Douglas Ross and Ruth Davidson and Adam Tomkins (who is a professional academic with, prior to this, a pretty good reputation as a thoughtful conservative) had all very publicly declared that they weren’t waiting for any investigation to finish or even for Nicola Sturgeon herself to give evidence, before they declared her a liar.
Labour and LibDems and Tories had all alike treated the investigation of the harassment process not as a means to make better what had gone wrong, but as a concerted effort to get rid of Nicola Sturgeon. (The committee report is published here.) And, to be fair, the SNP had then fought back – defending Sturgeon rather than acknowledging her mistakes and saying – as I think is fair – that they were mistakes, not resigning matters.
I heard the result of the no-confidence vote well before I got to listen to the debate. Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, rose to make a speech – an election speech, effectively, saying that he felt Scotland was tired of the SNP and would welcome a fresher approach.
And the Chamber laughed at him.
No polling suggests that the LibDems are likely to fall below their present handful of MSPs: none suggests they are likely to get more. They appear to be at their nadir in Scotland, and will be until people have forgotten that up until 2010, the LibDems enthusiastically campaigned in Scotland as a party to the left of Labour and the SNP – and then unblushingly made coalition with the Tories. (What killed Labour in Scotland was partnering with the Tories for the Better Together campaign: but the LibDems were already very dead.)
I knew from the result – 65 to 31 – that only the Tories and their extra MSP who’s technically part of Farage’s new not-Brexit party, had voted for VONC. I knew that SNP and Greens had voted against VONC. I realised that Anas Sarwar must have ordered his Labour MSPs to abstain. (I was afraid Keir Starmer had told him to vote with the Tories, but either Starmer didn’t or Sarwar said no.)
But I never actually thought once about the LibDems, till Willie Rennie got up to speak in the debate. They abstained too, and as Rennie explained hastily after the Presiding Officer had glared down the unmannerly laughter, for the same reason as Labour.
The Britain Elects forecast for today was:
SNP: 65 MSPs (+2)
CON: 25 (-6)
LAB: 23 (-1)
GRN: 10 (+4)
LDEM: 6 (+1)
I sincerely wish Labour gain another couple of seats from the Tories and become the official Opposition: I would much rather be seeing Anas Sarwar face Nicola Sturgeon than Jackson Carlaw again. [Update: I had heard Douglas Ross wasn’t going to stand in a Scottish Parliament constituency – and he’s not: he’s going to be top of the Scottish Conservative List for the Highlands and Islands, as he was in 2016, which makes it sure he will get a seat at Holyrood aagain, and he’s still planning to sit at Westminster as he has since 2017.]