A year ago, Jackson Carlaw took temporary charge of the Scottish Tories as Ruth Davidson departed on maternity leave. Twelve months on and Ruth Davidson seems set to step back into the role to keep the ‘seat’ warm for presumptive leader-in-waiting, Douglas Ross.
For Jackson Carlaw, leadership has been ‘nasty, brutish and short’. He may have been afforded the opportunity to ‘resign’, but this was, in every sense, a sacking brought about by growing unease over his inability to connect with voters or get his message across. Dire internal party polling confirming this proved to be the final straw.
Mr Carlaw’s performances at First Minister’s Questions drew particular criticism. Ironically, the former leader can be one of the most entertaining parliamentary speakers, delivering ‘tongue in cheek’ speeches on ministerial appointments that leave even the most hardened SNP backbencher guiltily chuckling along.
In the midst of a crisis such as the current pandemic, however, getting the tone and ‘voice’ right is tricky but critical. Understandably, the public expects politicians to set aside party differences. At the same time, government must be held accountable and Ministers need to be questioned and challenged on the decisions they take; decisions that are often, quite literally, a matter of life or death.
The brutal truth is that Jackson Carlaw has failed to strike that balance and has paid the price, albeit more abruptly than anyone expected. His more aggressive and confrontational style at FMQs of late has been a difficult watch for anyone other than supporters of the First Minister.
Nevertheless, anyone suggesting the First Minister and her government have not been ‘political’ in their handling of the current crisis has not been paying attention. Nicola Sturgeon has rightly earned plaudits for her calm authority, a grasp of the detail and her ability to convey empathy: traits all too apparently absent from the performances of counterparts at a UK level.
Yet this has led some in the SNP to claim that Scotland has been “extremely successful” in dealing with the pandemic. I’m afraid the evidence paints a very different story. As the Office of National Statistics confirmed last week, in terms of ‘excess’ deaths i.e. deaths over and above those for the same period last year, Scotland has the third-worst record in Europe. It may comfort some that the overall figure in England is higher, but when rates in Wales and Northern Ireland are half and a third of Scotland’s rate respectively, alarm bells should be ringing.
To her credit, the First Minister has long accepted that she has made mistakes and will do so in future. Any examples put to her, however, are dismissed by Ms Sturgeon as wisdom with hindsight.
But that is not true, particularly when it comes to Scotland’s care homes. For weeks, back in March and April, I recall MSPs from each of the opposition parties raising concerns about the lack of testing taking place in Scotland’s 1,000 care facilities. My colleague, Willie Rennie repeatedly highlighted the need for testing of all elderly patients transferring from hospital to a care home but this was resisted by the First Minister and her Health Secretary until mid-May. Last week, BBC Scotland’s Disclosures programme exposed the consequences of these decisions for care home residents and staff. Sadly, Scottish Ministers refused to take part in the programme.
The complexity of the decisions being taken by the First Minister and her colleagues right now is beyond question. As we continue to emerge from lockdown, balancing competing demands, while trying to anticipate the response of both the public and the virus, must be impossibly difficult at times.
Yet the profound implications of those decisions make it all the more important that the government is held to account. Opposition politicians, and indeed government backbenchers, must do this responsibly, forensically and on the basis of evidence, but we should never shy away from doing so. That is especially true when we are starting to see a narrative develop, suggesting that Scotland has been ‘extremely successful’ in combating this virus. Whatever our political allegiances, that is not what the evidence is telling us.