John Ferry

The SNP ferries fiasco has taken another nasty turn

The SNP ferries fiasco has taken another nasty turn
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It started as farce but is quickly turning into something more ugly, perhaps even sinister. When Audit Scotland last week released a report shining a light on the SNP's costly ferries fiasco, all the talk was of painted on windows and a comical 'launch' event for an unfinished ship. It was Carry on Up the Clyde but with a rather dull cast of characters.

This week the story has taken a different turn. Jim McColl, the Scottish billionaire who took over the shipyard at the centre of the controversy, has come out fighting. He gave an interview to the Sunday Times in which he accused Nicola Sturgeon's administration of hastily pushing through the contract for the new boats so the deal could be announced at the party's autumn conference in 2015.

'The audit report has revealed we were given the contract for political purposes. Everything was about the optics and timing the announcements for political gain,' he told the paper.

McColl said he had made it clear to the government and CMAL, the state body in charge of ship procurement, that his company could not provide the usual standard refund guarantee on the contract (such contracts are usually signed on a 'no financial risk to the buyer' basis). He said there was no question that the decision to overrule CMAL, which was against awarding the contract without the guarantee, was made by Nicola Sturgeon along with Derek Mackay, a now disgraced former transport minister.

Now, McColl has given an interview to BBC Radio Scotland in which he accused the SNP Scottish government of engaging in a 'fabulous propaganda exercise' aimed at putting 'the blame of this onto the previous management at Ferguson's'. His case was not helped by claiming he did not sign the contract on behalf of his company when it later transpired he did.

On the SNP side, they went straight for a full frontal attack. When Sturgeon was asked by the BBC if McColl was right to suggest the contract awarded to his company, Ferguson Marine Engineering Ltd (FMEL), was rushed for her political advantage, she said:

'No, he's not right. In fact, he's flatly wrong to say that.'

Scottish government finance minister Kate Forbes then went in even harder in the Scottish parliament. She said of McColl: 

'This is a man with a clear interest in shifting the blame on others when the root cause, ultimately, to the delays of these important vessels, was the construction under FMEL.'

The viscousness of the attack on a non-politician is notable but not surprising in Nationalist-run Scotland. But perhaps more disquieting is the SNP's shameless attempt to spin their way out of trouble by misleading the public. When she spoke in parliament, Forbes said the contract was awarded 'in line with all of the procurement rules and practices in the normal way, as the Audit Scotland report confirms'. Similarly, Sturgeon, in her BBC interview, said: 

'But as I think the Audit Scotland report said, there was nothing untoward in the procurement of the contract at the time.'

Nothing could be further from the truth. Audit Scotland did not say these things. Forbes and Sturgeon are in fact selectively referring to a part of the report that summarises the outcome of a Scottish government review of CMAL's procurement process which, not surprisingly, found no major issues. In other words, the Scottish government marked its own homework and is now trying to use that homework, which has nothing to do with Audit Scotland, as a get-out-of-jail-free card in the name of the independent auditor.

It stinks. And the twisting of the report to the point of engaging in flagrant misinformation is an outrage, especially when Audit Scotland is so clear on the deficiencies in the process, most notably on Sturgeon's government overriding its own expert procurement agency's advice and ignoring standard procurement specifications on financial guarantees.

The ferries fiasco has so far wasted at least £140 million, with nothing to show for it but a handful of cringeworthy photographs of SNP ministers cosplaying as old-school leaders of a Glasgow workers' movement. The Scottish government is quick to say lessons will be learned. Perhaps the first lesson is for businesspeople not to cosy up to a cause that loves its believers but ruthlessly pursues those it perceives as a threat.

In his BBC Radio Scotland interview, McColl revealed how he has become a dissenter on independence. 'With hindsight,' he said, 'I wouldn't support that (independence) now.'

A determined individual who poses a threat to Sturgeon's administration, who is an old chum of Salmond's and is now a deserter from the cause: it's no wonder the SNP top brass are giving it to McColl with both barrels.

Calls are now being made for a public inquiry. This story will not go away, and there will be more opportunities for McColl to defend his reputation. As he told the BBC: 'There's more work needs to be done because this is the tip of the iceberg.'

The ferries fiasco might well get bloodier yet.

Written byJohn Ferry

John Ferry is a contributing editor for the think tank These Islands and a former financial journalist

Topics in this articleScotlandPolitics