'Yousaf goes on the attack, but is he sinking in the process?'

The First Minister defended his Government's handling of requests from the UK Covid inquiry at FMQs.

Bernard Ponsonsby insight: First Minister Humza Yousaf goes on the attack at FMQs, but is he struggling? Getty Images

You can always tell when a minister is feeling the heat. All of a sudden, an approach normally defined by soothing tones is binned in favour of debate by bare knuckle.

And when colleagues feel the need to loudly applaud your every answer, you can bet that there is something of substance in opposition attacks.

So it was on Thursday, at First Minister’s Questions.

For yet another week Humza Yousaf had to defend his Government’s handling of requests from the UK Covid Inquiry, with demands for full disclosure of documents and messages pertinent to the decision making of Holyrood ministers during the pandemic.

Knowing what was coming, the First Minster went on the attack, deriding the Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross in the process.

He lambasted the UK Government for going to court to prevent the Inquiry seeing everything and he quoted, with an air of barely concealed disgust, comments attributed to Boris Johnson about letting the bodies pile high.

He used the content of some of the evidence already heard at the UK Inquiry to portray a UK Conservative government acting in a way that was dysfunctional, if not contemptible.

The pay-roll vote on the benches behind him loved it and cheered loudly in an effort to drown out the opposition jeers.

Humza Yousaf denies misleading parliament over WhatsApps

The presiding officer had to constantly cut through the opposition groans to request that the First Minister be heard.

This was an attempt by Yousaf to debate his way out of trouble. He got through the session but not before being told by the Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar that he was out of his depth.

The problem with the defence was that it relied in shifting the focus on the conduct of the Scottish Government in favour of an assault on the behaviour of UK minsters.

Ross reminded MSPs that this was the third week that the issue had been raised in a sure sign that this is not going away and continues to bedevil the First Minister.

Under pressure from the UK Inquiry, Scottish ministers issued a timeline detailing when they were asked for information.

Ross told the chamber this timeline was totally at odds with what the First Minster and the deputy first minister told MSPs.

He argued that their position was that they had claimed that the requests for information were made in September whereas it has now been made clear the initial request came in February of this year.

This apparent doublespeak, according to the leader of the opposition, amounted to not telling the truth.

Ross made the charge that “they have been caught red handed in a cover up”.

The FM rejected the charge, saying that a reading of the official record from last week proved this. Opposition MSPs guffawed.

The most telling line, and one that points to this issue not going away, was a frank admission from the First Minister that his Government had taken “too narrow” an approach to requests for information.

What does that actually mean?

Did that narrow approach lead to the Scottish Government dragging its heels on requests for information? Did its conduct amount to obstruction?

Yousaf was not asked those questions directly, but you can bet they will be asked when he does his next interview.

Ross has kept this issue in the public domain but today the more effective questions came from Scottish Labour’s Sarwar.

Sarwar repeatedly linked the point of the release of information to the issue of ensuring that the bereaved get the answers they deserve. He was effective, precisely because he was measured.

He also wanted to know why legal information the inquiry has requested was being redacted. The First Minister raised the issue of “legal privilege” but said if it can be shared in full it should.

The pressure to hand over unredacted legal advice will intensify, not least because the inquiry wants it and according to Sarwar, the UK Government’s legal advice contains no redacted passages.

He then went on to ask if SNP email accounts had been handed over to the inquiry, saying that it has been suggested key players communicated using party and not government emails.

Yousaf ignored that point, saying nothing directly about the claim but no doubt making a mental note that he better check it out.

As the First Minister tried to make common cause with Sarwar on the issue of putting the bereaved at the centre of concerns, the Labour leader observed that “he’s sinking, not swimming and is out of his depth”.

The FM got through this session but his answer about “too narrow” an approach and his non answer to the point about alleged SNP emails simply thicken the plot.

This is the kind of issue that opposition politicians love; an apparent dripping roast of never ending questions which appear to go to the heart of competence or rather, the lack of it.

The FM has not closed this issue down. His Government has not uttered the last word on the information requests.

For that reason, it is still a problem that will continue to haunt.

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