• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Holyrood sketch: Holyrood's Great White Shark survives the harpoons

When it's not being the lowpoint, FMQs is usually the pinnacle of the political week.

But today it was reduced to a warm-up act, a shuffling half-hour preamble before Labour brought on its headlining no confidence motion in the Health Secretary Alex Neil.

Mr Neil is one of Holyrood's super-predators: a permanently grinning Great White, he forever swims close to the nets but never gets caught, and loves nothing better than chewing up an opponent in debate just to show he can.

This afternoon, however, he was forced to stay silent as others swam to his defence. Only the grin remained, that fixed inflexible smile in the middle of a meaty red face, like a cross between Jaws and a doner kebab cone.

It was a tough session for Mr Neil. Spotting blood in the water, the Labour backbenches bristled with harpoons and they were all trained on Mr Neil's gumline.

As with the best political rows, the origin and import of this one had seemed clear at the start, then got muddier as things went on.

We knew Mr Neil reversed a decision to axe mental health beds from Monklands Hospital in his Airdrie & Shotts seat within days of becoming Health Secretary in September 2012.

But was that inherently wrong? Had it been shifty and secret? Or had it all been lying around unnoticed in the public domain?

The opposition were adamant that Mr Neil hadn't been straight and had deceived parliament.

First to strap on his oilskins and sou'wester, Labour's Neil Findlay gave SNP MSPs a rare laugh by insisting he took "no pleasure" in moving the no confidence motion, but "the dogs in the street" knew Mr Neil was a wrong 'un.

As Mr Findlay pressed home, one of Holyrood's many architectural quirks saw the sole sunbeam in the chamber land smack on Mr Neil's face, as if God was winding him up with a laser pen.

But despite such an ominous potent, Mr Neil just grinned his dead-eyed grin.

Public health minister Michael Matheson then defended his boss, insisting Mr Neil had removed himself from the final decision on Monklands because it had all been delegated to "public health minister Michael Matheson".

Next time he should probably check his script before reading out his own name like that.

Anyway, it was all Labour's fault. No scare story was too silly, no smear too low, he said, briefly cheering up the deflated Nat troops.

Tory whip John Lamont was understated but surgical as he filleted Mr Neil's record.

This has been "a very sad instance of a minister allowing an untruth to gain credence in order to avoid difficult questions about his own position", not to mention a "dereliction of duty" and a "tacit admission that he knew he had was doing something underhand and wrong".

The Cheshire Shark smile started to wilt. But that was before the comedy interlude, as SNP MSP Bob Doris put in the kind of turn that gives toadying a bad name.

He had come, he sniffed, to tell MSPs about "the Alex Neil that I know".

The carer, the healer, the man - nay, the legend - who "had introduced a workforce planning tool" and never been thanked.

As the inevitable heckling started, Mr Doris accused the Labour party of "grandstanding for cheap party political points".

As more jeers zinged his way, he claimed Labour was going "into robotic mode". He did a little robot dance, like one of those blokes in silver paint at the shopping precinct.

Labour, who regard the Nats as the regimented drones, exploded with laughter.

"They. Do. Not. Think. For. Themselves," Mr Doris whirred in response, generating further hilarity.

Labour's John Pentland, who had extracted the killer emails which sparked the row, was quiet but forceful.

Mr Neil had not only perpetrated a "scandalous political fix", he had imposed the worst of the rejected options on the people of Lanarkshire by abandoning the best option for adult mental health services.

The First Minister should sack him, he said.

But as he summed up, Alex Salmond was equally clear he would not.

It was all in the public domain already, he said, quoting various clippings and ephemera.

In truth, fragments had come out, but it wasn't until after a 18-month freedom of information that the government coughed up the final pieces of the jigsaw and all had become clear.

It ended with a rip-snorting turn by former Labour health minister Richard Simpson. Mr Neil's was "a bad decision, badly made"; he had failed to separate his personal constituency interests from his duties as health secretary; he had committed "an abuse of power" compounded by the misleading of parliament.

"He should do the decent things and resign."

After all that, even Mr Neil's gleaming rictus sank briefly from view. But an hour later the vote came in 67-57 in his favour. The shark was free to go.

He shouldn't get too relaxed about going back in the water, mind you. The Labour fishermen haven't given up the hunt yet, and next time they'll get a bigger boat.

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

234987