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Sketches

Various sketches from The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, and The Herald. Copyright belongs to the respective publications. Click on the blue links where applicable to read the original web version of the stories

Cherub Chancellor … from The Scotsman. A sketch on George Osborne’s inaugural budget as chancellor.

HE ENTERED political life as pale and fragile as a White Rose of York, but after just seven weeks mired in the manure of the deficit, Chancellor George Osborne yesterday revealed his thorns. It is said the young can be the most cruel, but at the outset of his maiden Budget, George claimed innocence for the savagery that lay ahead, having taken the helm of an economy in “ruins”.

Here was a boy tasked with paying for the past and planning for the future, a cherub forced to lay down his bow and pick up an axe. In fairness, no-one could envy the scale of the challenge facing the youngest chancellor since Randolph Churchill in 1886. Until yesterday, George’s most testing job came after his graduation from Magdalen College, when he spent a week working in Selfridges, picking up the towels that customers had examined but not bought, before folding them and placing them back on the shelf. He entered the Treasury to find the towels not so much ruffled, as torn into pieces, covered in petrol, and set alight.

Having inherited an empire in ruins, the Bullingdon Baronet sought to convince butchers and bakers that things will not be fluffy. “We’re all in this together,” came one early taste of Osbornese. He pledged not to hide from the electorate the full horrors of his Budget, and to his credit, George was uncompromising in his candour. The speed with which he outlined £11bn worth of cuts to the welfare system prompted the Labour back-benches to emit a noise that could have been more shrill if enlivened by a chorus of vuvuzelas.

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It was the “same old Tories,” according to an incandescent Harriet Harman, standing in front of a sullen, redundant Alistair Darling. The acting Labour leader struggled to avoid cliché, but won support with her description of the Budget as one driven not by economics, but ideology. The VAT rise only stoked the fires further, but a stern George insisted it was U-N-A-V-O-I-D-A-B-L-E. The word, unavoidable, was itself, er, unavoidable, mentioned no less than four times.

Despite the disorder, the 39-year-old remained impressively restrained. He seldom raised his voice, took just four sips of water (one of which, naturally, came immediately before the VAT rise announcement), and only once letting his lips curl into an ugly smirk. Similarly, there was a solitary attempt at humour. A reversal of Labour’s hike on cider duty, he explained, would come in time to celebrate England’s progress to the quarter finals or “drown our sorrows”. The mood of trepidation in the chamber meant it was greeted with silence.

Not that the eyes were trained on George for the most part, given the occasion offered an opportunity to test any tensions in the fledgling government. Was this, as the Chancellor insisted, a “progressive alliance” with a “progressive Budget?” A rise in capital gains tax for high earners elicited a few murmurs among the Tory faithful, but George kept them onside, throwing them a hearty chuck of red meat to the Houndstooth ranks.

“I have abolished the Treasury’s Euro preparation unit,” he announced to loud cheers from his party, before twisting the knife further, adding that the officials concerned have been “redeployed to more productive activities”. That was as far as it went for preaching to the converted. Among those of a yellow hue in the coalition, there was no such euphoria.

Nick Clegg spent the hour in a trance, punctuated by occasional bouts of nodding. On the other side, Danny Alexander sat bereft throughout, like Harry Potter wondering where his childhood had gone. If everyone in Britain must taste the medicine from George’s silver spoon, the Lib Dem members of the cabinet were the first to make clear that what cures you does not always go down easy.

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Stroll on … from Scotland on Sunday. Following Alex Salmond on the stump in Glasgow.

ALEX Salmond’s fiercest critics might have been revelling in his discomfort yesterday, but on the campaign trail in Glasgow the First Minister’s buoyant demeanour betrayed no sign of inner turmoil. After arguably the most tumultuous week of his political career, in which he was left sullied by abuse from one tycoon and acclaim from another – praise from Rupert Murdoch and a verbal bashing from Donald Trump – Salmond embraced the company of ordinary voters as he took to the streets of Glasgow’s West End to spread the SNP’s message ahead of this week’s local elections.

Over the course of an hour-long walkabout in the most fiercely contested council in Scotland, the focus appeared to switch from his ties with media mogul Rupert Murdoch, although the fact his innumerable aides – a flurry of twentysomethings brandishing yellow rosettes and balloons – were always a few feet ahead to cherrypick candidates for a brief discussion, handshake, and photo opportunity helped steer the First Minister clear of controversy. It was an afternoon given over to grassroots politics, the kind of electioneering in which Salmond excels. Even potentially fraught encounters ended with an easy smile and an endorsement, such as his chat with Michael Porter, a homeless man begging on the busy thoroughfare of Byres Road. “What’s your dug’s name?” the SNP leader enquired, before letting rip a hearty laugh when Porter replied: “Giro.”

Brian Hughes, the chief executive of Kiltr, a social network for Scots and expats, was one of around a dozen people Salmond spoke to. Afterwards Hughes said: “At the end of the day, Alex has to align himself with most businesses that have an impact in Scotland.” Elsewhere, Salmond waxed lyrical on a range of policy areas, from rudimentary infrastructure projects through to improving direct flights between Scotland and Sicily.

The cosmopolitan nature of Byres Road meant that often, Salmond found himself with foreign nationals, but he gave them his time and attention, discussing the similarities between bagpipe and country music with a native of Tennessee, and engaging with a Swedish visitor about matters Scandinavian.

The First Minister had arrived via a subway train at Hillhead station shortly before 3pm, where he was greeted by a small, yet keen, press pack, eager to hear his account of the week’s events. Smiling, and occasionally sighing whenever the name of Murdoch arose, he told Scotland on Sunday he would be issuing a full statement to the Leveson Inquiry, and intended to appear in person at the Royal Courts of Justice.

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“Folk are interested in the SNP’s positive message about homes and above all, about jobs,” he added. “The events of this week that interest the folk in Glasgow are the 800 jobs at Atlantic Quay which the SNP has focused on. Labour are focused on muck, muck, muck, we’re focused on jobs, jobs, jobs, which is why we’ll win on Thursday.”

With that, he scooted out into the mass of balloons, pressing the flesh with activists and candidates in Thursday’s elections, before strolling down Byres Road to meet the public. It was a low-key engagement, but one which the SNP hope will boost its prospects come polling day. Should the party emerge victorious in Glasgow, wresting power in a Labour heartland, it will be a triumph rich in symbolism. After the 2003 local government elections, the city returned 71 Labour councillors, and only three from the SNP. The advent of the Single Transferrable Vote system four years later reduced the margin, although Labour still retained an overwhelming majority, with 45 elected members to the SNP’s 22.

Now, however, the SNP smells the blood spilt by Labour’s internecine warfare, which has heralded a flurry of resignations and a splinter group, Glasgow First. “Labour are at the bottom of the barrel and are scraping down so that they nearly fall out,” said Salmond. “They’ve given up basically.” Those standing for the SNP on Thursday conceded that some party members may have been disquietened by Salmond’s relationship with News Corp’s chief, but stressed that ordinary Scots were preoccupied with other issues.

Gavin Roberts, a teacher and trade unionist who is standing in the Glasgow Canal ward, reasoned: “There will be a few people who will be concerned, but at the end of the day Alex Salmond was acting to save Scottish jobs and bring new jobs to Scotland. “It takes a long spoon to sup with the devil, as they say, and sometimes it has be done. But I think the electorate are mature and I don’t there’s any question to be asked over whether he was in bed with millionaires.”

After his tour of Byres Road, Salmond made a detour for the Ubiquitous Chip, the famous Glasgow hostelry which had promised him a free pint. He did not take up the offer, but visited the pub and made small-talk with customers. If this truly was the most difficult week of the First Minister’s political life, he must relish the challenges ahead.

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At the SNP conference, from The Scotsman.

IT was a threat, wrapped in a question, inside a challenge. Robbie heroically drained his seventh pint of Cairngorm Brewery’s bitterest. Pivoting on his barstool, he turned to face The Suit, who, nursing a Highland Spring, heaped scorn on public procurement policies. He’d been at it for the best part of a quarter hour. No way, Robbie figured, would his drink be soured any longer.

“Excuse me,” he interrupted, a slight slur evident, “are you wan o’ they New Nationalists that’s up gate crashing oor event?” The Suit, oilier than a tin of sardines, managed a lopsided grin, and shuffled his party a few paces down the bar towards a grinning Stefan Tymkewycz, the Edinburgh councillor and former MSP. Peace at last.

“Where were they kind o’ folk 20 years ago when I was gettin’ chased by dugs doin’ canvassing?” Robbie grumbled later in the evening. He considers himself a “pure Scottish Nationalist first, and a socialist second” and finds little enthusiasm for the courting of big business or talk of taxation policy. “Independence, son, that’s what I want.” Well, that and an eighth pint of Stag.

Such mottled scepticism was the closest thing to disharmony at Aviemore over the weekend. No place here for the wild-eyed, anoraked soothsayers of Alba, or historical enmities. Instead, an SNP national conference of unprecedented scale and significance drew parallels with 1997 vintage Labour. In fact, more than a few in attendance had crossed the party line to the Nats over the past decade. Professionalism, that was the buzzword. As one minister confided, Aviemore was “all about showing this is a conference of Scotland’s government, not just the SNP”.

Though more than five months have passed, some still seem shocked by that fact. The infrequent delegate could be found wandering around the sprawling Macdonald Aviemore Highland Resort wearing the expression of a recently freed prisoner: a mix of euphoria, shock, fear, and the unknown. Perhaps the gravity and history of the occasion had just hit them; perhaps they’d seen John Swinney salsa dancing.

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The oft-feared culture of triumphalism failed to rear its head. Surely at least one aide had slipped a Black Lace album and some streamers into the boxloads of merchandise shunted north up the A9? But with an international press corps and numerous visiting diplomats on site, everyone was forced to stay on message. The decree was unequivocal: “We don’t do Agadoo.” Only the Nationalists’ junior wing were afforded a degree of boisterousness, courtesy of a karaoke/disco wingding.

The main auditorium, as well as many of the sundry fringe meetings, staged little in the way of genuine debate. Sure, there were discussions, but seldom was the cosy social democrat consensus threatened. One MSP noted as much. “I think the debates will come after the budget,” he said. “At the moment, it’s probably prudent to be cautious.”

Late Saturday evening, in the Cairngorm Hotel, one of the many cramped taprooms filled over the weekend, one table discussed broadly the difference between a “SNP for social justice” and an “SNP for Scottish interests”. Drink flowed and some grassroots members argued for one or the other.

If those are the divergent paths the future holds for the Nationalists, tensions may emerge. Perhaps those attending should have paid heed to the sign hanging below the Cairngorm’s optics. “Remember this when you come here,” it states. “What you see here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here, or don’t come back here.”

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On the stump with David Cameron and Annabel Goldie, from The Herald.

IT’S the same every time she decides to decorate. “Hello, Dave, ” she’ll coo down the telephone line to me in London HQ. “It’s your Auntie Annabel here. I need a helping hand, and I know I can always rely on my tall, dashing nephew.” I’d sooner chat to a doubleglazing cold caller, yet how else can I possibly reply? Family values, after all, lie at the heart of all I stand for.

It’s not that I dislike the dear girl, you see. I just feel I’ve outgrown her. I mean, fingers crossed, I’ll be in Tony’s seat in a few years. I’m only too willing to help the Scottish regiment but a photocall alongside Auntie in a paint shop car park in Perth? What would Lord Saatchi say? Don’t get me wrong. At least she didn’t do her usual, fiddling with my hair, or rubbing my cheek with a hankie. But the whole idea’s akin to asking Robbie Williams to go back on the road with Oasis, or having Eminem reform with Take That (ask intern to check this, please – Dave).

Auntie’s certainly a woman of considerable probity but she’s terribly old-fashioned. There’s me, last year’s second best-dressed man (according to GQ) in a smashing new navy two-piece and lilac tie. Auntie? Swathed in an opal green skirt and jacket number. Nothing on Theresa May’s kitten heels. Her campaign isn’t any more modern. “Vote Lib, Get Lab”, that’s her new slogan. Her people phoned the chap at Bannermans Paint Shop to have him make up a 2.5-litre tin of “Labour Red” gloss, so she could paint over the LibDems’ yellow.

Ironic she should pose with a paintbrush. People say Auntie’s lot could be doing with a makeover themselves. In the end, I bit my tongue and helped her. That’s the kind of guy I am. We toured a YMCA in Perth, talking to the young people. I told them I’d been misrepresented over the whole “hug a hoodie” kerfuffle. We filmed it all for my website and I told the young people they were free to log on and comment. “As long as you don’t swear, ” I jested, “you can even call me a jerk.” I’m sure they got the joke.

Yes, it’s good touring Scotland. I even managed to pop by RAF Leuchars. Pop’s family, I always tell myself, are from Aberdeenshire, and I want to keep on good terms with the tartan branch. Auntie’s lot elect their own leader, write their own manifesto and make their own policies. “Together, ” I said, “we can inspire people, not threaten them like Labour do, or offer a dangerous divorce like the Nationalists.”

Scotland’s an integral part of a strong Union. And spiffing for hols. Especially during grouse season. It was a fun day, alright, and I told Auntie that. I only hope yesterday is the last time I have to help her out with painting and decorating during her little campaign. Like I told her, the Scots Tories should never attempt DIY – they only end up botching the job and having to call in the professionals to clear up the mess.

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Tony Blair’s visit to East Renfrewshire, from The Herald.

IF legend is to be believed, Camelot had just the one round table. King Tony, however, can boast six. They were envisioned as tables of counsel and debate. The Labour apparatchiks said so. “Let’s Talk”, they billed the morning’s proceedings. Six tables, eight people apiece, invited from a crosssection of East Renfrewshire society. King Tony would pass between them, these shoots of the Labour grassroots. Together, they would share questions and discover answers. Very Arthurian, despite the absence of wizardry (discounting the campaign press officers).

A half-dozen tables to covet, then. But the King’s already up against it. Here’s his grey Jaguar, a half-hour late, just arriving in Neilston. The protesters could have waited all day. “Shame on you, Blair!” hollers Catherine Droy. “Out, out!” She is here in anger at East Renfrewshire Council cutting warden provision in care homes. Officially, it’s a “cooncil matter, ” but it’s not every day Labour royalty visits.

Inside, King Tony appears to applause. To his right, the faithful Sir Jack. Both are armed with black coffee in Labour mugs. They grasp the crockery like divining rods, finding the first table. Handshakes dispensed, pleasantries follow. The region’s educational strengths elicit positive murmurs. Anti-social behaviour rears its head, too. More powers for the police, the King says. A student in thick black eyeliner cuts through the superlatives. “How do we bring back Labour supporters who used to vote for the party almost as a tradition?” The King takes a slug of instant. “The most important thing is to focus on delivering for Scotland, ” he reasons.

No time left here. Five tables await. A hurried aide leans in Sir Jack’s ear. Up, up up. This isn’t political debate. It’s political speed dating. Except everyone here is already in love. Table two. Here’s Betty Cunningham, East Renfrewshire’s sprightly provost. She slides a Barrhead News under the King’s nose. “He’s a local boy, ” she says, pointing to a picture of Alex McLeish, Scotland manager. The King, all charm and molars, finds his lightbulb. “My dear old auntie used to live in this constituency, ” he reveals warmly. Next to him, Cantor Ernest Levy strikes up chat. One of Scotland’s most prominent Jewish figures and a concentration camp survivor, the King receives the 82-year-old warmly. And is polite enough not to mention his tartan Kippah.

Time, as is its wont, presses on. Ten minutes down, four tables to go, and the coffee’s getting colder. King Tony despatches his knight eastwards. The photographers stick rigidly to the royalty. Again King Tony finds a receptive audience. Across the room, Sir Jack mingles with another group. No-one knows what they are saying. It’s not that no-one can hear; no-one is listening. Again, musical tables. A few cursory speeches, and it’s cut short. The King leaves the building. Those tables left out seem disgruntled. Haven’t they been reading the papers recently? Dating royalty only ends in heartbreak.

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On the stump with Jack McConnell, from The Herald.

LESSONS in electioneering part 1. If you’re looking for colour in the final day of a campaign, don’t look to John Major. The former Tory prime minister, most agree, was not renowned for his verve. In fact, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn once remarked, he was a man so bland, to describe him as grey was an insult to porridge. Union Jack couldn’t disagree more. Less than 24 hours before the polls open, he’s on Glasgow’s streets, delivering his closing rally from a soapbox. If it worked for Major in 1992, why not McConnell 15 years later? From Maastricht to Motherwell in one ideological step. All that is needed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, so the rationale went, is the ‘common touch’.

Not that Union Jack encouraged crass terms such as “soapbox”. It was a “stage”, he insisted of his little black lectern. Plonked at the top of Buchanan Street next to Donald Dewar ‘s statue (or in its shadow, depending on your level of cynicism) , it signalled a bold, yet twee ploy. The choice of location left much to desire. Twice a PA system speaker had to be moved to allow vehicles past, first of all a Glasgow City Council bin lorry, and then a Loomis cash van (insert joke about Labour economic policy here, please) . Aides hurriedly tacked the wires to the ground. “Has anyone got any masking tape?” one asked hurriedly.

Tape applied, and minicrises averted, Union Jack’s address began. All around his stage, Labour ‘s players rallied, the Home Secretary among them. Keep it quiet, but there was even a Californian member of the Democrat party here on holiday, roped in to hold red balloons and placards for the Labour photoshoot. The leader himself was Officially Relaxed, shirt sleeves rolled up, framing a soft, pastel-pink tie. Nothing fresh about the rhetoric though, merely one last spelling out of the usual choices. Education versus separation. Repeat until they vote.

John Reid, his suit buttoned up to the hilt, adopting his characteristic attacking strategy, deriding the SNP’s arrogant assumption of victory, squinting into the sun like Clint Eastwood. “People are coming home to Labour, ” he growled. Forget the bluster. This was a statement made in hope, not expectation. There followed an abortive four-minute walkabout, from Dewar ‘s statue to around the corner at Sainsbury’s.

Along the way, there were two or three polite handshakes and vows of support, but scorn too. “Why do I have to wait four weeks to see a GP, Jack?” one man asked to no avail. The morning, really, was a curious gamble. Only today will tell if 2007 will herald a similar result for Labour as 1992 gave the Tories. Whatever the outcome, at least Union Jack didn’t tuck his shirt into his underpants.

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On the stump with David Cameron, from The Herald.

IT was Buchanan Street karma. At last, the Hare Krishna scourge and the chuggers receiving a dose of their own medicine. That’s Dave for you. He knows that north of Berwick, Tories can’t be choosers, especially at election time. His visit to Glasgow is an exercise in indiscriminate electioneering, charming all and sundry – even Polish plumbers and Iraqi students. Anyone, frankly, entitled to vote.

It doesn’t start so smoothly, mind. For a good halfhour before Dave’s Merc sets down in Argyle Street, it is left to Bill Aitken and a clutch of young Tories grasping white balloons to hold the fort. Not easy when Rosie Kane’s around. Across she comes from St Enoch Square, with wraparound shades and a red SSP flag. Nearby, a friend on megaphone duty blasts out polemic on the socialists’ free school meal promises. “Where’s Big Dave?” she demands of a visibly flustered Bill. “I want to speak to him, ” she insists. “He wants to hug a hoodie; I want tae feed them.”

Matters worsen as Lisa Collins arrives. An unemployed, homeless mother in temporary accommodation in the Ibrox area of the city, she is eight months pregnant with her second child. “Can’t you do something for me?” she pleads. Bill wears the expression of a dog being shown a card trick, allowing Rosie to seize the initiative.

First, though, there is identity confusion. “Are you Labour?” Ms Collins asks. “No, ” Rosie laughs. “I’d rather go to a Turkish prison.” Pragmatic promises on Rosie’s part follow, along with Ms Collins’s pledge to vote SSP. “That Tory seemed to have something stuck in his throat, ” she tells me.

As the clock strikes one, Bill and the boys are saved. Dave arrives, in open-necked white shirt. Humouring Rosie’s attempts at sabotage, he’s off, Auntie Annabel, resplendent in a peach jacket, by his side. “Everyone’s wearing earphones, ” he complains, passing by Argyll Arcade. Some folk, though, are happy to chat. Some are more sober than others. “Do you know who I am?” Dave asks a short, bedraggled figure, full of beard and pungent of smell. “Oh aye, ” Glesca Jimmy replies. “I see ye a’ the time on the telly in Currys windae.”

Paul Timmons, a civil engineer from Inverclyde, and a tentative Nationalist voter, is the exception. No f lies on this 28-year-old. “Do you take responsibility for the 20 years the Tories were in charge of destroying Greenock and the shipbuilding trade?” he demands of Dave. “Of course we do, comes the answer. But you have to ask if things have improved over the past eight years.”

Elsewhere, Dave, waxing lyrical on affordable housing and junior doctors, seems to impress – at least, for a Tory in Glasgow. “A very warm reception, ” is his impression. At 1.30pm he fields one last inquiry. “So are you the next Prime Minister, then?” Dave smiles. “Well, the next but one, ” he says. With that, the Merc arrives, and Dave is off. “Are we going to win?” he shouts to Bill’s boys. “Yeeesss!” they holler in unison. On this showing, his prophecy could come true. And to think, he didn’t even have to say “Gouranga.”

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On the stump with Jack McConnell and Annabel Goldie, from The Herald.

THEY say that timing is everything in politics. If true, Jack McConnell and Annabel Goldie ought to have words with their forward planners. Really, you couldn’t blame either of them. On a dreich Bank Holiday Monday in Largs, there’s no greater comfort than Nardinis. Doubly so after wearing out the shoe leather on the campaign trail. The First Minister and the Scottish Conservative leader chose the same town – indeed, the same time – to launch their latest offensives yesterday. That they opted for the same cafe proved to be the Flake in the cone.

It was just before 11.30am when Jack got off the campaign bus into a relentless smirr. “I was hoping for ice-cream weather, ” he groaned. The menu of Nardini at the Moorings proved immune to resistance – forget a scoop of rum and raisin when there’s Bovril and biscuits for £1.70. As he stepped into the bistro, their eyes met. There she stood, diminutive in padded navy jacket with a Tory Blue brolly. The people of Largs hadn’t seen a showdown like this since Hakon Hakonson fronted up King Alexander III.

Jack was already five footsteps inside. Too far for a fearty’s retreat. One hand grasped Annabel’s elbow, the other clamped her hand. Embarrassment averted, a tactical withdrawal soon ensued. So began his amble up Main Street, pausing at bus stops and shop doorways, a scattergun of hellos and handshakes. By a stall under (whisper it) the Royal Bank of Scotland erected by local activists, he drove his message home.

Tourism, including news of a new golfing academy of excellence, was the day’s topic. VisitScotland was enjoying unrivalled growth, he stressed, and Scotland could prosper further courtesy of more air routes. The importance of the economy was never far away, irrespective of Sir George Mathewson’s sentiments. “The SNP would make Scotland the highest taxed part of the UK, ” Jack insisted.

Bar a jarring attempt to have a toddler give the thumbs-up, he seemed to impress, even vaulting a 3ft high flood barrier without the breaking of breath (or tearing of crotch). For her part, Annabel’s stroll was far more scrutinising, such was her determination to speak to Largs locals. Such a search, on a Bank Holiday, is akin to finding the starting point of a circle. “We’re from Canada, ” said a bemused couple. The geographical evasion continued, with a roll call of towns taking in Greenock, Bishopton, Kirkintilloch and Wemyss Bay.

Seven people later, she found Betty, a Largs resident, and outlined her intentions to recruit an additional 1500 police officers. A lifelong Tory voter, Betty nevertheless had just one thing on her mind. “I don’t think much of David Cameron, ” she said. “I don’t like him when he’s on the television.” Up came the rearguard. “I think Mr Cameron’s doing an excellent modernising job. And don’t forget, ” she stressed, “I’m the leader of the Tories in Scotland.”

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