Ruth Davidson’s return to the political frontline took place in the most solemn of circumstances.
Minds were elsewhere as the tragic consequences of the Stonehaven train derailment slowly unfolded.
But after politicians of all parties had sent messages of support to families and the emergency services, they got on with the business of getting stuck into each other.
Ms Davidson’s first joust with Nicola Sturgeon since she quit as Scottish Conservative leader six months ago offered extremely fertile territory for attack.
The Conservative MSP’s comeback had coincided with arguably the most humiliating political U-turn in the history of devolution as a result of an exams fiasco caused by spectacular mismanagement.
So, it was no surprise that Ms Davidson should attempt to spear Ms Sturgeon on the lamentable performance of John Swinney, little more than 24 hours before the Education Secretary faces a vote of no confidence.
With typical combativeness, Ms Davidson talked of the “terrible” ordeal suffered by the many thousands of pupils whose results were downgraded before Mr Swinney’s volte-face.
She called on the first minister to make sure every Scottish university honoured every conditional offer given on projected grades – an enormous ask given that Mr Swinney’s climbdown has resulted in a soaring pass rate when compared to previous years.
A slightly sheepish Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government was unable to guarantee a university place for every young person, an admission of the obvious but one that may be a portent of further trouble for ministers.
John Swinney has been the common denominator through all of that. The first minister’s loyalty to a colleague may be commendable, but her real loyalty should be to the parents and pupils of Scotland.”
Inevitably, Ms Davidson turned her attention to Mr Swinney listing a long list of his shortcomings as Education Secretary including teacher shortages, the scrapping of his flagship Education Bill, his failure to close the attainment gap and the current exams controversy.
“John Swinney has been the common denominator through all of that,” Ms Davidson said. “The first minister’s loyalty to a colleague may be commendable, but her real loyalty should be to the parents and pupils of Scotland.”
The mention of the word “loyalty” gave Ms Sturgeon her chance to fight back. The very reason Ms Davidson had returned to the fray was that she was standing in for the newly installed Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross. His position as Moray MP means he is in the wrong parliament to take part in Holyrood’s First Minister’s Questions.
The Ross/Davidson joint ticket had emerged from the ashes of Jackson Carlaw’s sudden resignation as Scottish Tory leader. It had not escaped Ms Sturgeon’s notice that Ms Davidson and Mr Ross had been accused of plotting to remove Mr Carlaw.
“I am not sure that loyalty to colleagues is a strong suit for Ruth Davidson,” Ms Sturgeon remarked, wryly – a comment that went down well on the SNP benches.
Thereafter, their encounter offered a template for the lines of attack that are likely to be adopted in all First Minister’s Questions from now until May’s Scottish elections.
In just a few months I will submit myself and my government to the verdict of the Scottish people in an election. That is the ultimate accountability for our record and our leadership. As we do that, Ruth Davidson will be pulling on her ermine and going to the unelected House of Lords.”
Ms Sturgeon attacked Ms Davidson for accepting a seat in the House of Lords.
“In just a few months I will submit myself and my government to the verdict of the Scottish people in an election,” the first minister said. “That is the ultimate accountability for our record and our leadership. As we do that, Ruth Davidson will be pulling on her ermine and going to the unelected House of Lords.”
Ms Davidson had a retort up her sleeve, drawing attention to the embarrassing fact that Alex Salmond has been hosting his own show on RT, formerly Russia Today – the Kremlin-backed broadcaster.
“The former leaders of the Labour Party, the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Conservative Party might want to go and serve in another Parliament,” Ms Davidson said.
“Yes, she thinks that that is a bad thing, but there is not a word of condemnation for the former leader of her party, who would rather shill for Putin’s Pravda.”
It was an exchange that will be repeated in one form or another over the coming months. Ms Davidson’s return to the frontbench may have been a reminder of her past as Scottish Conservative leader, but it also offered a glimpse into the future.