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Saturday, 28 October, 2000, 08:27 GMT 09:27 UK
McLeish's difficult beginning
Henry McLeish being sworn in
Henry McLeish was sworn in as first minister on Friday
By BBC Scotland political correspondent Elizabeth Quigley

Last Saturday I was standing outside council buildings in Stirling waiting for the Labour party to make up its mind.

Four years ago I was also there waiting for a decision on a referendum on devolution - should there be one? Or maybe even two?

Along with the rest of the press pack I suffered the indignity of being locked out of the building while the great and good of the party pondered this dilemma of their own making.

This time it was a bit different. We knew we weren't going to be hanging about endlessly - unsure whether it was safe to send someone down to the town to get the teas, bacon rolls and sticky buns in case they missed the main event.

Henry and Julie McLeish
Mr McLeish and his wife Julie celebrate his new job
This time we knew we'd get the result at about 1330 BST.

And it was close. By 44 votes to 36 Henry McLeish was declared Labour's interim Scottish leader.

The first thing he did was turn his attention to his backbenchers - many of whom had backed his rival Jack McConnell.

They needed reassurance that, to paraphrase a very New Labour phrase, things could only get better under their new leader.

On Tuesday they seemed happy enough with his emphasis on making sure they were involved - they would get more access to the first minister, there would be a policy unit with improved links to the parliamentary Labour group and they would even get access to civil servants.

Minutes after Mr McLeish outlined his plans to the backbenchers, they held a press briefing.

We were handed a three page document informing us that the new Labour leader would have an open door policy, and there would be better access to the first minister, tours round the country, a change in the time of the Cabinet meeting - no particular surprises until we turned to the last page.

Henry McLeish being emotional
Mr McLeish found his election emotional
It looked like using taxpayers' money for party political ends.

And on access to civil servants - was that just for Labour MSPs?

Did that mean if you were a constituent in, say, Ayr - which is represented by a Tory - you would not get the same level of representation as someone in Glasgow Cathcart?

Was he really proposing a two-tier system?

The Labour MSPs on the panel looked at each other, they looked at their papers, and they tried not to look completely confused.

The vice-convener of the group, Scott Barrie, admitted it was far from clear.

Labour MSPs agreed later it was a shambles. One insisted the policy unit was funded by Labour not the public purse, then an executive minister interrupted his colleague to contradict her.

Another briefing was offered and abruptly turned down by the collective press corps.

Instead a one page statement was issued.

Henry McLeish laughs
There were light moments in a difficult week
Yes, MSPs of all parties would have access to civil servants through ministers, and no, the existing policy unit of special advisers would not be closely linked to the Labour party. Separate from all of that would be a political unit staffed and funded by the Labour party and the trade unions.

On Thursday the opposition leaders and Dennis Canavan had the chance to tell Mr McLeish what they thought of him during the election for first minister.

The Falkirk West MSP urged him to stand up for Scotland.

Tory leader David McLetchie questioned whether Mr McLeish was up to the job, and the Scottish National Party's John Swinney lambasted what he called the short cut of Labour's farcical election - 48 hours to get just 44 votes.

But unsurprisingly Henry McLeish won the first minister's election - this time with 68 votes.

Looking back, it has hardly been an auspicious start. He must now be hoping his first week as first minister is much better than his first as Labour leader.

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See also:

27 Oct 00 | Scotland
Royal audience for McLeish
26 Oct 00 | Scotland
McLeish wins first minister title
24 Oct 00 | Scotland
McLeish in civil servants row
21 Oct 00 | Donald Dewar
Leadership win for McLeish
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