Nicola Sturgeon forced to defend record in final first minister’s questions
Nicola Sturgeon endured a series of attacks on her record when she faced opposition leaders during a rowdy and heated final parliamentary session as first minister.
With Sturgeon stepping down in five days, hopes she might enjoy a dignified final session as first minister were immediately dashed when the Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, accused her party of repeatedly lying to the media.
Their exchanges overshadowed a more reflective statement from Sturgeon marking her departure next Tuesday after which all four opposition leaders paid tribute to her eight years as first minister and Scottish National party leader, singling out her leadership during the Covid crisis.
Speaking to reporters after leaving the chamber for the last time as first minister, having conducted first minister’s questions 286 times, Sturgeon admitted she had felt “pretty emotional” during her valedictory speech. “I possibly struggled a bit more than I hoped I would, to not shed a few tears in there,” she said.
She confirmed she had left office with regrets. “Show me a human being or a politician or a government minister that doesn’t have regrets and I show you somebody that’s not properly human,” she said.
Failing to deliver independence as first minister, she acknowledged, was significant. “I would love to have been the leader who took Scotland to independence,” she said. “For me, obtaining independence is much more important than the person who leads us there and I have no doubt Scotland will become independent.”
Ross opened first minister’s questions by accusing Sturgeon’s colleagues in the SNP of lying repeatedly about a 30% fall in the party’s membership – a deception he implied Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell, the SNP’s former chief executive, was linked to. Murrell quit last weekend, throwing the party’s leadership contest into chaos.
Ross’s language provoked uproar from SNP MSPs and repeated warnings from Alison Johnstone, Holyrood’s presiding officer, that he was breaching parliamentary rules. “We do not use the word ‘lie’ in this chamber,” she said.
Sturgeon retorted the SNP was still Scotland’s largest party by far, urging Ross to reveal the Scottish Tories’ membership figure.
Ross said she was “treating the Scottish public like idiots” by mounting such an “embarrassing defence”; no one would be gullible enough, he added, to believe Sturgeon did not know about the slump in membership.
During a tit-for-tat exchange over her failures and successes, where Ross pointed to Scotland’s record drugs deaths, record A&E waiting times and huge cost overruns with a ferries contract, Sturgeon asserted that Scotland had delivered a social security agency paying £20 a week for every deprived child, a national investment bank, the UK’s most progressive income tax regime and the best performing A&E departments in the UK.
The SNP has also won eight successive elections in Scotland since she became party leader, she said. “I am proud of the record of government that I have led through some of the toughest times Scotland has faced in recent history,” she said.
She said that after Boris Johnston’s faltering defence on Tuesday of his attendance at Downing Street parties during the Covid crisis, Ross was in no position to be “lecturing people about honesty”.
Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, initially adopted a softer tone, praising Sturgeon for her leadership during the Covid crisis, but returned to the record waiting times in the NHS, drugs deaths and record levels of homelessness, claiming the SNP had wasted £3bn on failed policies.
He said Sturgeon had wasted the substantial political opportunity she had to make significant improvements to Scotland’s services and economy. Quoting Kate Forbes, a candidate to replace Sturgeon who has been highly critical of the SNP’s record, he asked Sturgeon whether she agreed that “mediocrity, continuity and incompetence won’t cut it”.
Sturgeon said Scotland had the UK’s highest employment rates and economic inactivity rates at a record low. “We face many challenges but I have every confidence that my successor will be standing here next week [and] will continue to lead this country forward,” she said, to applause from SNP backbenchers.