After the recent snow-bound chaos and rapid thaw, this has been a week of fluctuating temperatures at Holyrood. For some, this is still the edgy cold of mid winter, whilst for others they are increasingly feeling the heat.
Out in the cold is the simple summation of the situation Mark McDonald has found himself in since falling foul of an investigation into sexual harassment. The Aberdeen Donside MSP was one of the Parliament’s more effective performers in his former role as Children’s minister before the allegations broke, before he resigned from Government and began his four-month absence from the chamber whilst investigations took place.
Holyrood has often sought complacent solace in the belief that it’s “nowhere near as bad as that awful place, Westminster”, and yet most have always felt that the same fundamental flaws in the eyes of the public would surface. After all, politics is about people, delivered by people, in the full gaze of public scrutiny, and in that circumstance, whiter than white complacency was always bound to become tarnished in due course.
And so it is with the culture of sexual harassment. A view heightened by the recent polling evidence that 20% of staff working at Holyrood had been the subject of inappropriate behaviour, and getting on for half of those were allegedly perpetrated by MSPs themselves. As Mr McDonald closes the door of his new, basement, Holyrood office, he will doubtless reflect ruefully that he is unlikely to be the last. The introduction this week of the new lobbying register in Scotland is unlikely to record a long list of engagements for him over the next few weeks and months.
There will be many in the Parliament that will be looking on nervously as the newly independent member is frozen out by almost all of his colleagues. Others will be uncomfortable that he has been unable to defend himself publicly against allegations unpublished. Meantime, party operatives will be increasing their quiet preparations for any snap by-election in Aberdeen, should McDonald find the cold shoulder treatment unsustainable.
Temperatures have fluctuated hugely too this week around the continuing negotiations between the Scottish and UK governments on the EU Withdrawal Bill. The thermometer was rising to boiling point early in the week after both sides set out minimum acceptable positions on the powers being repatriated from Brussels which were completely incompatible with one another. With the First Minister making clear that all EU powers in devolved areas must be returned to Edinburgh, the PM was left with little wriggle room to deliver what she regards as red line UK frameworks in some key policy areas. In short, the prospect of the Scottish Parliament agreeing to the legislative consent motion that is required to comply with the Scotland Act looked on Monday to be as far away as ever.
Fast forward to the aftermath of their meeting on Wednesday, the mood music had lightened and the climate had warmed slightly, but it remained hugely difficult to see where compromise can be delivered. Both sides must have spent at least some time in the negotiating room contemplating the appalling error made in the drafting of the Scotland Act in 1998, when no provision was ever considered to be necessary for the UK’s membership of the EU ending. As any lawyer will confirm, the key to every successful contract is in anticipating the unthinkable. Failure to do so is usually expensive, and always a problem.
Fixing that problem remains out of reach, but the stakes for both sides are high. For the UK, legislating for devolved competences without Holyrood consent crosses the deepest, reddest of red lines. And for Holyrood to stand in the way of the Withdrawal Bill would be high stakes indeed. Both sides still talk hopefully of concessions and agreement, but, in truth, the basis for that agreement is difficult to see.
And finally. The Mercury was rising this week as Alex Salmond was preparing for his weekly appearance on RT. Pressure on him, and his production company, had risen in the aftermath of the nerve agent poisoning in Salisbury, with the finger pointing directly at the Russian state. An air of anticipation surrounded the run up to the former FM’s weekly show: would he take a dramatic stand, side step the issue or come out fighting? We should have known, and in true Salmond style the defence was concessionless, and he responded to heated argument by turning up the dial on his rhetoric. Above all, you have to admire the former MP and MSP’s self-belief, if not his grasp on the games being played by Moscow.
Significant, then, that the heat has moved on to Salmond’s producer and co-host of his RT programme, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, who still retains a place on the SNP’s ruling committee. You would probably assume that her continued involvement is likely to be a provocation too far for Nicola Sturgeon who will wand to douse the flames on this one before the SNP is formally dragged into the Salisbury fall-out.
For different reasons, much of Holyrood will now be looking forward to the looming Easter break, and some more predictable political climate. That is, for those who remember when we used to have a predictable political climate.
Peter Duncan is the Managing Director of Message Matters.