The SNP’s latest ferries farrago

The SNP's latest ferries farrago
Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images
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Hurrah! A Scottish Government press release announces, with no small modicum of pride, that it has at last located the mysterious missing documents in the ferries saga. Audit Scotland, the public body which runs the rule over Holyrood’s spending of taxpayers’ money, recently conceded defeat over this matter. It had spent considerable time and effort trying get to the bottom of the SNP’s 2015 decision to buy two ferries from a shipyard owned by a Scottish Government economic advisor — against the advice of its own ferry agency. Seven years on, the initial cost of £97m has ballooned to £250m and neither of the ferries has been completed.

The outstanding questions were: who took the decision to award the contracts — and why? Ministers quickly pointed the finger of blame at former transport minister Derek Mackay, even though they were unable to find the relevant documents to prove it. Lo and behold, said documents have seemingly been located and, according to current transport minister Jenny Gilruth, ‘it shows that the decision was rightly and properly taken by then Transport Minister Derek Mackay’. Well, that’s most fortunate.

The emails suddenly found down the back of the Scottish Government’s digital sofa record that Mackay gave the go-ahead but also that civil servants waited to run the matter by deputy first minister and, at the time, finance minister John Swinney ‘to ensure there are no financial/procurement issues that he might want further reassurance on’. According to the emails, word came back the same afternoon, with another civil servant filling in the others: ‘Just finished my call with DFM. He now understands the background and that Mr McKay [sic] has cleared the proposal. So the way is clear to award.’

So Mackay may have been the minister signing off on the contracts but Swinney, then as now Sturgeon’s right-hand man, also gave the green light.

This purportedly answers the ‘who’ question but not the more pertinent ‘why’ questions. Why did SNP ministers award public ferry contracts to Ferguson Marine shipyard even after it warned them that it would be unable to provide a full-refund guarantee, a standard undertaking in the industry and one of the contractual obligations set forth in the agreements? Why did ministers disregard the advice of Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited, the government-owned ferry corporation, which cautioned against giving Ferguson the contracts? Why did the Scottish Government keep pouring money into Ferguson, both in payments and loans, even after the yard had shown itself unable to deliver on its end of the deal? Why are these ferries still under construction — with islanders told to expect further delays until next year — when Nicola Sturgeon ‘launched’ one of these vessels in 2017?

Mr Steerpike would like to hear the answers to these questions but equally he wouldn’t want them to occlude another, overlooked aspect of this scandal: the ocean-going (or, rather, ocean not-going) incompetence of the Scottish Government. In one of the latterly unearthed emails, a civil servant refers to the need to ‘confirm the absence of banana skins’. Sturgeon’s government steps on banana skins with a frequency the Three Stooges would have considered a bit ham. It’s not so much that ministers ignored official advice, wasted public money and ended up having to take a shipyard into public ownership, it’s that they are so inept they failed to document their ineptness properly.

Devolution was supposed to spotlight the best and brightest of Scottish politics. After 15 years of the SNP, Mr Steerpike is beginning to wonder if it has.

Written bySteerpike

Steerpike is The Spectator's gossip columnist, serving up the latest tittle tattle from Westminster and beyond. Email tips to or message @MrSteerpike

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