Ferries fiasco will keep haunting the Scottish Government

Failure to deliver the vessels is a scandal that won't go away for ministers.

Ferries fiasco will keep haunting Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government STV News
The ferries are long delayed and over budget.

Quite a lot of anger when politicians clash is more than a touch staged – raising the rhetorical temperature is simply part of the theatre of politics.

My real sense at today’s First Minister’s Questions is that there was nothing faux at all as Douglas Ross and Anas Sarwar went on the offensive in tones of frustration and anger.

The scandal of the ferries contract with its huge cost overruns and delayed delivery date continues to haunt ministers. It simply won’t go away and, what’s more, it is likely to run and run.

‘Guilty man’

Yesterday, an email was released which provided the basis for the Scottish Conservative leader taking the FM to task over the issue of who signed off on a deal which has gone so catastrophically awry.

Ross charged the Deputy First Minister John Swinney as the “guilty man”, the individual who ultimately gave the green light. Not so, according to Nicola Sturgeon, it was the former transport minister Derek Mackay who made the key decision.

Derek MacKay is likely to give evidence to a parliament committee.Getty Images
Derek MacKay is likely to give evidence to a parliament committee.

Her line of argument was that Swinney, who was finance secretary at the time, was informed of the decision as it involved the spending of public money.

Ross demanded that Swinney make a statement to parliament, which he insisted was all the more vital, given that published documents pointed to the risk of legal challenge to the contract. The First Minister said that ministers receive advice about legal challenges all of the time, it was but one factor to take into account when making decisions.

Who knew what and when is a favoured line of questioning for politicians who try to take a scandal to the top of the political tree. The role of Swinney is in one sense irrelevant. Sturgeon herself has said she takes responsibility for everything her administration does.

What we have not heard from the FM, and I would suggest this is the more pertinent question, what does ‘accepting responsibility’ actually mean? It would appear the government line is that they acknowledge that matters have gone badly wrong. And that’s it. They acknowledge and move on.

The parliament’s audit committee is pouring over the damning findings of the Auditor General in relation to the procurement of the two ferries. The aforementioned Mr Mackay is likely to give evidence to the committee and it will be interesting to listen to what he has to say on the matter.

Douglas Ross quizzed Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister's Questions.Scottish Parliament TV
Douglas Ross quizzed Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions.

The temperature in the chamber was already pretty hot when Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar demanded to know how many investigations into bullying by current or former SNP cabinet ministers had taken place and what the outcomes were.

He got nowhere with his questions, with the First Minster saying that she was not in a position to give any details since she would risk breaching data protection law.

She rejected an angry charge from Sarwar that she led a government that operates in a “culture of secrecy and cover-up”.

There was nothing false about the exasperation of opposition MSPs, particularly in relation to the ferries contract.

This was not the first time that the fiasco has dominated the weekly exchanges and it won’t be the last. We are a long way from the end game of this story. I come back to my question, what does accepting responsibility mean in practical terms?

I’m not holding my breath for an answer.