Orcadian Column, 30 November 2023

30 Nov 2023

Hosting the star of the Great British Bake Off and getting my first taste of chairing First Ministers Questions made for a busy few days at Holyrood last week that took some digesting.

My dubious credentials as a former contestant on Orkney Celebrity (aka Amateur) Masterchef hardly qualified me to shoot the cookery breeze with Dame Prue Leith, even if my years playing goalkeeper for Burray have given me an intimate understanding of the soggy bottom phenomenon.

But Dame Prue’s presence at Holyrood had nothing to with a push to improve the selection of desserts in the parliament’s canteen, rather her desire to show support for my member’s bill on Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults. A long-standing supporter of a change in the law to allow for assisted dying in the UK, Dame Prue’s views were shaped a decade ago by having watched her brother die a painful and difficult death from bone cancer.

Such testimonies have been a real feature of the debate around my bill and the attempt to change the law this time round. And while the public appetite for greater choice at the end of life has long been overwhelming, these personal stories are helping shift the political mood in parliament, where support has grown significantly since 2015, when the previous bill on assisted dying was defeated. Certainly, there was a large turnout of MSPs from across the parties at the event I hosted on Tuesday evening, no doubt tempted by the prospect of selfies and recipes as much as my update on a bill that I hope to introduce to parliament early next year.

A similarly unruly gathering of MSPs was to be found later in the week at First Ministers Questions, which I chaired. With the Presiding Officer, Alison Johnstone recuperating after a recent operation, my Deputy PO colleague, Annabelle Ewing and I will be assuming additional duties over the coming weeks. So it was that I called the Chamber to order at midday on Thursday at the start of the main set piece event in the parliamentary week.

Despite being an ‘old hand’ now at chairing proceedings in the Chamber and even dealing with fairly rowdy debates and exchanges there is, I have discovered, a particular adrenaline rush that comes with taking the chair for FMQs. It stems, I suspect, from a combination of a live TV audience; a packed public gallery; and an insider’s knowledge of the mutinous mindset adopted by some MSP colleagues for the occasion.

Political tensions were further heightened by the ongoing tow over Health Secretary, Michael Matheson’s attempt to charge taxpayers £11,000 for data charges racked up while on a family holiday in Morocco last Christmas. In the event, other than telling Douglas Ross and John Swinney to stop bellowing across the Chamber, I found that FMQs passed off relatively uneventfully. In chairing, as I have learned since taking up refereeing football matches, success tends to be measured by the extent to which you don’t have to intervene and can avoid becoming the centre of attention.

No doubt, though, who remains the centre of attention at Holyrood. Mr Matheson has cut a haunted figure of late, and it is hard on a personal level not to feel sympathy for him and indeed his family. Mr Matheson’s decision to refer himself to the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body may have bought him time, but he is far from out of the woods yet.

There is currently no deadline for the SPCB to conclude its investigation into what happened and why, but meantime the media pack shows every sign of wanting to keep the issue running. Other stories about Mr Matheson are being dragged up daily, all of which helps reinforce the impression that the Health Secretary is unable to focus on carrying out the key role he has within government.

To date, the First Minister has staunchly defended his Cabinet colleague, but the sense is that one new revelation or twist would be enough to persuade Mr Yousaf to cut his losses. Mr Matheson’s ministerial career may not yet be toast, but much more grilling and the First Minister may need to reach for the extinguisher.