Ferguson Marine CalMac ferries scandal could end Nicola Sturgeon's political career – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

Last week the Finance Secretary came to parliament to regretfully inform MSPs that the two government-commissioned ferries under construction in Port Glasgow would be delayed yet again.
Nicola Sturgeon has questions to answer over delays to the construction of two CalMac ferries (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Nicola Sturgeon has questions to answer over delays to the construction of two CalMac ferries (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Nicola Sturgeon has questions to answer over delays to the construction of two CalMac ferries (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

She also confessed the cost of their delivery would be nearly three times the original contract. It sparked questions from opposition politicians and members of the press. Questions that have so far gone unanswered and which could threaten the First Minister’s survival in office.

It’s a story that has been chuntering along for several years. At first, it was one of mild ridicule, a bit of joshing around the fact that in 2017, Nicola Sturgeon attended a photoshoot for the ‘launch’ of a boat that had painted-on windows and a pretend funnel because it had not been completed on time.

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Two years later, with the boats still incomplete, the government paid nearly £130 million to the yard, but despite this injection of capital the shipbuilders went into administration and were taken into public ownership.

The following January an industry fixer, charging a consultancy fee of over £2,000 per day, was brought in by ministers to turn things around. He departed with a ton of public cash, but before the boats were finished.

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The government is limping from crisis to crisis in their attempts to deliver these boats and shipbuilding experts suggest the final cost may reach over £400m, far outstripping the original £97m “fixed-price" contract.

All the while, island communities have had to face delays, breakdowns and cancellations as the clapped-out fleet that serves them lurches on, far past the date of their planned decommissioning.

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We’ve moved on from the Boaty McBoatfarce jibes. Something about the beleaguered Ferguson Marine yard, the interventions by SNP ministers and the two boats rusting in drydock and under construction these past seven years (!) smells rotten, almost to the point of corruption.

Indeed, this weekend, the shipyard’s former owner Jim McColl, a former SNP adviser, said that, in a rush to bag a good news story for their conference, SNP ministers cut corners so they could award the contract to Ferguson Marine in the first place.

One of those corners happened to be the omission of any protection for the public purse. He told a newspaper “everything was about optics, the timing of the announcements, was for political gain”.

That’s an astonishing allegation because it suggests that the SNP were using big capital contracts, and taxpayers' money, as a political fulcrum over which to maximise electoral gain.

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That is beyond scandalous and more than just a fiasco. In their quest for positive headlines, the SNP missed those key safeguards and as a result cost the public coffers the equivalent of six new high schools.

SNP ministers and the spin doctors around them have sought to blame figures like disgraced former Finance Secretary Derek Mackay and others for the debacle. But in Nicola Sturgeon’s Scotland, nothing that big happens without her say so.

Between the 19th and 20th centuries, around 30,000 ships were built on the Clyde. In this century, the Scottish Government can barely manage two. It’s a sorry chapter in the story of a once-proud industry and, given the severity of the allegations, could yet read as the final chapter in Nicola Sturgeon’s premiership.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western

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