by Stephen Tall on February 12, 2008
No, not me – it’s the Lib Dems’ Scottish leader Nicol Stephen who has been earning plaudits from The Scotsman’s Hamish MacDonnell:
A couple of weeks ago, Wendy Alexander held a dinner for some members of the Holyrood political press corps. Her aim was to explain her thinking on the constitutional convention but, in the course of the evening, the Scottish Labour leader was told – quite bluntly – that she was pretty awful at First Minister’s Questions. She was informed that not only was she being beaten by Alex Salmond every week, but that Nicol Stephen was doing a much better job for the Liberal Democrats than she was for Labour.
That dinner happened just after one of Ms Alexander’s worst ever performances: she started by asking a question about SportScotland, went on to talk about the Budget and ended on police pensions, failing to score a point with any of her efforts. At the same session, Mr Stephen asked three pointed and direct questions about SportScotland and had the First Minister riled, angry and unable to answer clearly.
Mr Stephen was under considerable pressure after the election. His party had failed to live up to its own expectations, coming fourth with only 16 seats, and was out of government for the first time since devolution. Critical voices started to be heard behind the scenes, with some suggesting Tavish Scott would make a better leader than Mr Stephen, who was seen by some as lazy and uninspiring. Now, Mr Stephen appears as secure as Stirling Castle, and the reason is simple: First Minister’s Questions.
Mr Stephen has always taken a direct route to FMQs, asking short, direct questions of Mr Salmond, while refusing to be blown off course by the First Minister’s rhetoric. The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader has also not been afraid to hit hard and low, when he needs to. His claim that there was a “smell of sleaze” around the First Minister’s role in the calling-in of the Trump development remains the one stand-out comment from the parliament since the last election. Whether it is his attitude, his questions or just the fact he is a Liberal Democrat, Mr Stephen gets right under Mr Salmond’s skin, and the First Minister hates it. Mr Salmond finds it very hard to control his vitriol when Mr Stephen starts asking awkward questions, which often results in a loss of concentration and victory for the Lib Dem leader.
The number of people outside the parliament who have watched Mr Stephen get the better of Mr Salmond is very small, but that is not the point. Mr Stephen has grown in confidence with every session of FMQs he takes part in. As that happened, so morale within his parliamentary party has increased, cementing his place as leader. That permeates down to activists on the ground, allowing the party to grow as an effective opposition party after eight years in government.