nexplicably, some Tory MPs curl their lips at the weekly performances of Ian Blackford, Westminster leader of the Scottish National Party. True, he does ham it up something rotten, swerving from disgusted whisper to full blown button-popping outrage in the snap of a sporran. Yes, he does tend to go on a bit too long, heaping up huge, trembling verbal spoil heaps from the Caledonian cliché mines.
But Blackford is actually very good at what he does. Behind those OTT theatrics is a cunning political brain that can mince complicated arguments down to fist-sized soundbites. A bit like Boris Johnson’s, you might say. He can be brutal, calling Theresa May a liar when she was PM. He is also a gifted opportunist who memorable called out Johnson for “playing on his phone” during one of his elongated speeches instead of “listening to Scotland”.
It’s fascinating to observe the separatist Scot playing the Brexiteer PM’s tricks back at him. If ministers dare suggest the SNP would set back the Scottish economy by leaving the 300-year-old Union, Blackford accuses them of insulting Scots as “too wee, too poor, too stupid” to run their own affairs. A classic Brexiteer trop: silly and simplistic, but deeply effective on an emotional level.
Blackford’s colourful monologues occupy a slot soon after Sir Keir Starmer sits down. Labour’s leader was glum: He observed after his questions were treated by Johnson as opportunities to say whatever he liked: “This is another PMQs with yet again no answers.”
To be honest, Sir Keir did not try his hardest to get answers. When an Opposition leader says something like this – “Next week’s Budget is a chance to choose a different path. To build a stronger future, to protect families, to give our key workers the pay rise they deserve and to back British businesses by supporting 100,000 new start-ups. Will the Prime Minister do so?” – then he is really just recording a Twitter video.
Johnson saved his best line until Starmer had exhausted his six questions. He mocked with great delight: “He vacillates – we vaccinate!” This ought to make Labour worry: The Prime Minister is not supposed to enjoy himself at PMQs.
Blackford was not in the chamber, but beamed from his pine-clad living room in Ross, Skye and Lochaber, mountain scenes hanging on the walls. “The UK has suffered its worst recession in 300 years,” he warned. His screen acting is muted compared with the waistcoat-bursting performances he has given in the chamber, but fans were not disappointed as Blackford cranked up the tremolo to bewail “austerity cuts that will leaving lasting scars on all our communities”.
Johnson decided to have a bit more fun. Pointing to £13 billion investments for Scotland he teased: “I must say I wish that the Scottish nationalist government would spend that money better.”
Regular watchers will have seen how much it irks Blackford when the PM mispronounces his party’s name as “Scottish Nationalist Party” instead of “National”. Speaker Lindsay Hoyle even stepped into rebuke the PM and ban the joke a fortnight ago. So Johnson was being provocative to both by using the “ist” word, albeit as an adjective rather than a title. Blackford and Hoyle chose to turn a deaf ear.
Blackford was back in his pulpit, preaching against cuts, words hissed like “cold hard reality” and “deep inequalities” and “broken Westminster system”, his voice trembling with rising emotion to the climax when he asked, “or is the Tory plan to return to type and impose yet another decade of Tory austerity?” To convey the full Blackford experience, try reading that aloud in the voice of Private Frazer telling a ghost story in a black and white episode of Dad’s Army.
Johnson had another pop at the SNP’s demands for another independence referendum. “He talks about our broken politics, our broken country. All they want to do is break up Britain with another referendum and I think that is the last thing this country needs.”
If the SNP find themselves suddenly short of a referendum salesperson, they could do worse than call up their Westminster leading man. Under his kilt, Blackford resembles Brexiteer Boris more than he likes to let on.