Modern government increasingly comes down to the ability to navigate through the choppy waters of seemingly perpetual crises.
Today at First Minister’s Questions, Nicola Sturgeon had to deploy her full fire-fighting mode as she came under sustained attack from her opponents.
The first line of attack was on an issue that refuses to go away. Indeed, it is an issue that will run for the foreseeable future and constitutes one of the greatest scandals in the history of the Scottish Parliament: the cost overrun of the two CalMac Ferries being built on the lower Clyde. Currently, they are due to cost the public purse a quarter of a billion pounds.
Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, employed a style of scorn and ridicule in his pursuit of a basic question. What happened to a key document that detailed the sign-off on the fateful contract by ministers? He asked the question repeatedly and was given the same answer again and again and indeed again.
He didn’t get a straight answer. The defence amounted to this: if you look at all the surrounding documents, it is clear that the missing document simply records that ministers were aware of all concerns from stakeholders over the building of the two ferries.
I didn’t hear an answer to his question as to whether the First Minister herself saw the advice questioning whether the contract should go ahead.
Sturgeon was animated and detailed in her responses. Her body language told me that she fully expects to be hounded by this issue for many months.
Ross was unimpressed by her responses. The cost to the public wasn’t regrettable, it was scandalous, he said in increasingly angry tones.
Who knows where this issue will end up? Given the eye-watering sums that have been paid over and above the original contract price, it is hard to imagine that the current government defence that ‘this is all regrettable’ will survive further probes without something giving.
The impatience continued when Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, questioned the First Minister. His frustration, too, gave way to anger over the issue of Covid deaths in care homes.
Yesterday in England, the High Court found that the UK Government policy of discharging untested patients from hospital back into care homes was unlawful. Was her government’s policy unlawful too?
Sturgeon rejected the charge whilst conceding that the policy north and south of the border was ‘broadly similar’. It cut no ice with Sarwar, who repeated the charge of some of the families of the bereaved that the policy was shameful, unforgiveable and criminal.
The FM looked visibly burdened, arguing that the statistics and deaths of the pandemic will live with her until her dying day. She quite fairly pointed out that the policy was followed throughout the UK in administrations of different political colours.
There is, of course, a public inquiry about to get underway that will examine all advice, evidence and ministerial decision making in this key area. The final judgement will really come down to whether ministers acted on the best advice available or whether they were too slow, or worse still, negligent in not being reactive enough to concerns over asymptomatic transmission.
Sarwar is effective in raising patient concerns over a range of issues, although I felt he got his tone wrong in his last question which seemed to take this issue and turn it into a party political squabble in a way that simply jarred with the sensitivities involved, not least in the anguish of the bereaved.
The First Minister is a skilled debater who regularly takes a series of difficult issues for her administration and, by dint of rhetorical flourish, extracts herself from political difficulties.
However, as her predecessor Alex Salmond used to remind us, “facts are chiels that winna ding”. Debating skills will take you only so far in the face of unforgiving reality.
As far as the ferries scandal is concerned, I suspect that there are more ‘chiels that winna ding’ and they are headed the First Minister’s way. She is long enough in the political tooth to know this.
The long-term question is whether her formidable presentational skills will be good enough to dodge an indictment that reads negligent decision making and a monumental loss of scarce public resources.
The opposition sense this is the issue that will break her reputation for competence. What’s more, I sense that she realises this too. I suspect the minutiae of this fiasco is now her bedtime reading.