Nicola Sturgeon in trouble over Covid crisis, hospitality sector's plight and the Alex Salmond affair – John McLellan

Reputedly former First Minister Alex Salmond’s favourite restaurant, Ondine on Edinburgh’s George IV Bridge is rightly famed for its menu of Scottish fish dishes, with proprietors Karin and Roy Brett lauded by the likes of national seafood evangelist Rick Stein.

Saturday, 10th October 2020, 7:00 am
Nicola Sturgeon is facing big questions over the Salmond affair and her handling of the Covid crisis, says John McLellan (Picture: Andy Buchanan/pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Nicola Sturgeon is facing big questions over the Salmond affair and her handling of the Covid crisis, says John McLellan (Picture: Andy Buchanan/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Different times indeed, and shortly after the current First Minister Nicola Sturgeon revealed her plan to hold back coronavirus by shutting down the already beleaguered Scottish hospitality industry, their anguish on social media spoke volumes. “Today’s announcement is worse than we could have ever imagined… it is a crushing blow for the hospitality sector that no one could have foreseen with a complete stranglehold on the Central Belt.”

Now forced to close until October 25 at the earliest after four months of inactivity, every central Scotland restaurant is on the edge of a blade far sharper than a fish-knife; even if they are allowed to open like cafes, you don’t have to be Nick Nairn to understand they can’t survive with no evening trade or wine mark-up. It’s a kitchen nightmare even Gordon Ramsay couldn’t find the language to describe, never mind solve.

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“We are in a very dark place,” said the Bretts in reply to Rick Stein’s supportive message, but by the haunted look in her eyes at Thursday’s First Minister’s Questions, so too is Nicola Sturgeon. As she curls up with a book this weekend, not talking about government business with her husband and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, she can reflect on what has been a dreadful week which may yet prove definitive as this Parliament nears its close.

Everyone accepts Covid-19 is not going away and the latest joyless lockdown will only slow the spread of infection. If the First Minister was being totally up front, she would admit that, with the infection rate her absolute priority ahead of the economy, the chances of a relaxation of confusing and unfair restrictions after only a fortnight are slim. Maybe the hospitality support package will save some popular pubs and restaurants, but it will not be sufficient to solve the economic problems mounting every day and even a vaccine won’t be an instant cure.

Many lower-paid jobs tied to office-working will not return and governments can’t go on subsidising jobs existing only on paper, so the Scottish Government must plan now for permanent changes to the way people work in a country so reliant on services. And even with a Covid vaccine, the Government must work out what is an acceptable fatality rate as it does with every other disease.

With Edinburgh Council’s Janus-faced attitude to tourism, the Capital’s problems could be deeper and, even if restaurants like Ondine survive, a future with higher earners spending less time in the city centre and working for companies which have learnt that deals don’t need to be sealed over dinner in swanky restaurants will mean a radical re-think. Drivers, suppliers, waiters and sous-chefs are the real victims.

One person determined to cling onto her job amidst a coronavirus crisis is Rutherglen MP and potential virus super-spreader Margaret Ferrier MP, who shows no sign of resigning despite being told to do so by Ms Sturgeon. Ms Ferrier may well need the money, but if the damning front page of the Rutherglen Reformer is anything to go by, if she faces a recall petition she will be gone in six months.

But along the way, her defiance is a further dent in the First Minster’s authority, already under extreme pressure because of clear unhappiness about the independence strategy from the likes of Joanna Cherry MP and open criticism of the way the party is being run from veterans like Alex Neil and Kenny MacAskill.

Inextricably linked to the Salmond affair, her open-palmed plea of innocence under cross-examination by Scottish Conservative Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson about when she knew about allegations of sexual misconduct against her predecessor, was really aimed as much at Mr Salmond’s supporters as Ms Davidson’s.

The birds in the Holyrood Park trees know that if as prominent a Nationalist as ex-adviser Geoff Aberdein broke the news to Ms Sturgeon that Mr Salmond was facing serious sexual allegations it was unlikely to slip her mind, but that is what she expects everyone to believe.

But the very complexity of the explanations about what she did or didn’t do, and her husband’s convoluted explanation of the content of his text messages about the police investigations, serve only to undermine her authority.

As all this was unfolding, the Scottish Government published Stirling University professor Mark Priestley’s “rapid review” of this year’s exams fiasco, which exposed the chaos within the Scottish Qualifications Authority as lockdown smashed the system, some of it unavoidable but much of it preventable.

It also confirms the opportunities Education Secretary John Swinney had to intervene, most notably a warning nearly three weeks before results day by Labour MSP and ex-teacher Johann Lamont that the moderation system would unfairly disadvantage students from poorer areas. But Mr Swinney let the SQA get on with it until public pressure forced a u-turn on grade reductions.

Education used to be Ms Sturgeon’s top priority and, under normal circumstances, the report would have dominated headlines but attention has been diverted by Ms Surgeon’s chaotic Covid tactics, the resulting crisis in the hospitality sector and questions about her integrity and credibility which won’t go away. No wonder even some Nationalists now say, as Roy Brett might put it, a fish rots from the head.

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