In the quadrangle beneath Gilbert Scott’s Gothic Tower in Glasgow University, two photographers have set up their tripods. It’s an hour before the Scottish party leaders’ election debate and I’d expected to see more snappers than these two. A chipped piping call overhead though, reveals all.

A pair of Peregrines are feeding their young at the top of the tower, as they’ve been doing for the last 20 years. These are the university’s real superstars and far more regal than the common or garden tits who’ll take to the Bute Hall stage for this BBC Debate Night Special.

After passing through three security checkpoints, I arrive at the ‘Spin Room’ adjacent to the debating chamber. This space is one of those accoutrements that attach to the televised leaders debate since we imported this contrivance from the US in 2010. This is where the journalists and party advisers gather to watch the show unfold. There’s usually an assortment of senior MPs acting as boxing-ring seconds, ready to greet the leaders as they come down off the stage and tell them they ‘nailed it’.

Alex Cole-Hamilton, Lorna Slater and Douglas RossAlex Cole-Hamilton, Lorna Slater and Douglas Ross (Image: PA)

The ‘verdict’ though, is anything you want it to be. Unless one of them has a sweaty meltdown there’s rarely very much between them. Prior to kick-off they’re each provided with a dozen or so smarty-pants soundbites and a few top-line statistics and percentages. It becomes a bit like Dale Winton’s Supermarket Sweep as the contestants rush around a supermarket seeking to gather as many high-value comestibles as possible inside a two-minute time-frame. 

Hutcheon of The Record has lately taken to marking the contestants with scores out of five in the manner of the Eurovision Song Contest. A common theme has begun to emerge in his verdicts: Douglas Ross will be at the bottom. In the first of these debates last week he finished with two out of five.

After last night’s debate and somewhat harshly, Hutcheon gave the soon to be ex-Tory leader half a point, like a Ukrainian judge after the Russian entry. If the lugubrious Hutcheon doesn’t award him ‘nul points’ next time, I’ll be disappointed.

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The television monitors set up in the spin room are showing EastEnders as the warm-up. This makes sense. EastEnders is also about men and women shouting insults at one another for half an hour.

There’s a squadron of the parties’ top lieutenants here: Fiona Hyslop for the SNP; Jackie Baillie for Scottish Labour; Ross Greer for the Scottish Greens, Willie Rennie for the Lib-Dems. The occasion is far too important for first-time candidates. These scions are all well-known to the journalists and, as such, there’s a degree of cordiality in our interactions. And besides, afterwards they’ll be expected to provide their immediate post-debate reaction to their leader’s performance.

Kevin McKenna: This is the best I’ve ever seen her perform.Kevin McKenna: This is the best I’ve ever seen her perform. (Image: PA)

These can all be summed up thus: “John/Anas/Ross/Lorna/Alex done brilliant and showed they’re ready to effect the change that Scotland needs.” The hapless Tory sent out to walk this plank usually has to smile helplessly as the others all take turns to call his employers ‘rotten’.

At the top of the staircase leading to the Bute Hall, I’m greeted by Douglas Ross, whom I’d interviewed two weeks ago. He’s had a helluva week, but he greets me with a jocund recollection before I can commiserate with him. “I took your advice after all and resigned,” he says. “You have more influence than you know.”

It’s just that I’m not entirely sure I suggested such a thing though, unless it was in jest. But I smile dutifully and try dismally to impart something witty and wise. 

Andrews of The Times is over by the window and we chat desultorily about what on earth could have compelled Mr Ross to step down in the midst of an actual election. In these conversations with the lobby journalists, I quickly become alarmed at how much they seem to know about it all and how little I do. I’ve perfected the art of nodding in all the right places.

Our very own Brian Taylor wanders over, dressed immaculately as ever as though preparing to take to the floor at the Blackpool ballroom. He’s sporting a set of day-glo tangerine braces in honour of Dundee United’s promotion and I’m wondering how they’re going to show up under the television lights when he’s asked to provide his instant analysis later on. 

Boothman of the Sunday Times is here, obviously. Not for the first time, I wonder if he has the gift of bi-location. If any of the parties were hosting a retirement bash for the driver, he’d be there and he’d probably chivvy out a story from it.   

There’s a choreography to these occasions. We, the journalists, begin to live-tweet our witty 20-word apercus about the debate and then later the party advisers will wander hither and yon among us, offering us their whispered incantations. “I thought that point John made about the Ukrainian conflict affecting the price of Domestos showed why we need independence.”

And “Anas nailed it about ‘this rotten Tory Government’ causing Dutch Elm disease in the Caledonian Forest.”

Later, some of the party stalwarts will take to social media to salute their commanders-in-chief. Labour’s Margaret Curran tweeted this: “My goodness! Anas Sarwar on blistering form. Taking Swinney to task with passion – brilliantly putting Labour’s case.” She stopped just short of calling for a knighthood.

John Swinney and Anas Sarwar in full debateJohn Swinney and Anas Sarwar in full debate (Image: PA)

Alex Cole-Hamilton, leader of the Lib-Dems and part-time Airbnb entrepreneur, raises the first giggle with his opening statement. “People always ask me why I’m always smiling,” he says. Ross Greer, sitting beside me says drily: “I wonder if at the next parliamentary journalists meeting they’ll inquire if anyone’s ever asked this of Alex Cole-Hamilton.”

The debate finishes and the contestants all fall into the waiting arms of their supporters. “You nailed it,” they’re all told.

In truth, none of them let anyone down or made a complete horse’s fundament of it. Not a single vote will be shifted, though. If I was to choose a winner though, it would be Lorna Slater. This is the best I’ve ever seen her perform and it warmed my black Marxist heart to hear her call for a luxury tax on the super-rich. “Times are not hard for the super-wealthy,” she declared. “They’ve made out like bandits since Covid. Their wealth has doubled and tripled.”

The Scottish Greens are not bad when they stick to real issues.