Ever since the Coalition government set about “reforming” the NHS in England and Wales, Alex Salmond has made healthy progress by presenting himself as the reincarnation of Sir William Beveridge, the founder of the welfare state. None of Andrew Lansley's ham-fisted surgery skills are being deployed on health services in Scotland, so things must be better here, right?
In fact, no-one knows. No reliable data has been available for comparisons with outcomes in the rest of the UK, meaning the claims of Mr Salmond, that the sick of Scotland have thrown away their crutches and can walk again, have so far gone unchallenged.
Until yesterday, at FMQs. Enter Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader, armed with medical opinion, and a disconcerting bedside manner. Was Mr Salmond aware, she wondered, that the Royal College of Nursing had concluded there are “not enough nurses to provide basic, safe care”? Or that Audit Scotland and the Centre for Public Policy in the Regions said Scotland is lagging behind England in resourcing the NHS?
Well if he was aware, the First Minister wasn’t letting on. Instead he rambled on like a patient still woozy with anaesthetic. He did come up with a statistic of his own: for every eight nurses in Scotland, there are 5.3 in England (that O.3 of a nurse works in the urinogenitary clinic in Cockfosters, apparently). But aside from this, his random targets appeared to be with the Welsh Labour Party (offered no right of reply) and the Shadow Health Secretary.
The latter is, of course, Jackie Baillie, such a substantial figure that she played a very large part in proceedings without actually asking a question. It was Ms Baillie who earlier this week had drawn attention to a supposed shortage of bed covers in the Greater Glasgow Health Board, an assertion that drew a blanket condemnation from Mr Salmond.
Gradually it became clear that the FM had a health issue of his own, a kind of weird, intermittent hearing loss in the presence of Conservatives. When Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader asked why Mr Salmond spent £130million on free prescriptions, when most people were prepared to pay for their medicines, he obviously didn’t hear at all, because he didn't answer.
Then Mr Salmond launched a paean to “the lost leader”, Murdo Fraser, whom he mistakenly thought had spoken, before hearing just one word in two whole questions from John Lamont. That word was “separation” a term that made the FM's eyes bulge. "Separation? Separation? I look forward to the United States of America celebrating their Separation Day,” frothed Mr Salmond. Nurse, the screens!