Opposition politicians have finally got what they wanted: after calling for Stewart Stevenson’s for most of the past week, it transpires that the now former Minister for Transport, Infrastructure & Climate Change has been considering his position and after a brief period of reflection, has opted to tender his resignation.
It was, I fear, inevitable. He can’t be blamed for the snow, and it’s debatable just how much of the disruption caused by it is actually the fault of the Government, but what appears to have done for him is one of the fundamental rules of politics: it’s not the event, but the reaction that makes or breaks you. Sadly, those in charge did appear to have been caught with their pants down and at times like that, the public generally expect someone to carry the can. As the public face of transport policy in Scotland, it had to be him.
Nevertheless, this is something of a departure. For all of the opposition parties’ crowing, we should remember that the SQA exam results fiasco resulted in no resignations. Instead, Sam Galbraith, the Education Minister, was quietly moved to the Environment brief when Henry McLeish entered Bute House, then finally retired on health grounds. Spiralling NHS waiting times and planned hospital closures (which actually saw Labour MSPs rebelling on a vote of confidence in Malcolm Chisholm, the then Health Minister) saw no resignations: instead, Chisholm was moved to the Communities brief. When he himself resigned, in December 2006, it was over Trident rather than the wave of housing stock transfer votes, which were lost on his watch.
So the actual act of a Minister resigning to carry the can for something that’s gone wrong is a new departure for devolution: it hasn’t happened before. Aside from policy differences, Wendy Alexander resigned as Minister for Nearly Everything in a huff, Richard Simpson resigned as Deputy Justice Minister after being pilloried for referring to striking firefighters as “fascist bastards”. The only other Minister to tender a non-policy-driven resignation was Jim Wallace, who stood down in 2005 after ceasing to be LibDem Leader.
And indeed, unless you count the three Ministers who were, ahem, “invited to resign” in the reshuffle eighteen months ago, this is the first genuine resignation in the SNP Government, and it comes a full three and a half years into its term. That’s impressive.
Nevertheless, attention now turns to possible successors. Should the FM wish to move someone from an existing portfolio, options are limited. Alex Neil is a possibility but I wonder if the Directorate for Finance & Sustainable Growth is big enough for both him and its Cabinet Secretary, John Swinney. Fergus Ewing is pretty much ruled out if the SNP wants the support of the Greens on anything ever again (they referred to him as a “petrol-head” when the notion of co-operation between the parties was discussed prior to the last election). Schools Minister Keith Brown and Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham would be possible contenders for the sideways move (especially Cunningham, who’s been working on a related brief since last year, and was John Swinney’s Deputy Leader, remember), though the FM would then face a question of who to replace them. Still, it may be worth it, if only to put a slightly more experienced hand on a tiller that is perceived to need one right now.
So who else? If we’ve ruled out Fergus Ewing for failing the Greens’ test, we also have to rule out Chief Whip Brian Adam, who represents an Aberdeen constituency and so is broadly in favour of the oil industry. And James, the Greens’ PR guru slates Shirley-Anne Somerville as a “lover of roads, hater of public transport”, so I suspect that one of Joan McAlpine’s favoured contenders would be an equally risky appointment. Tricia Marwick is an outside bet, but I suspect that the appointment will be drawn from one of the Parliamentary Liaison Officers.
Out of the PLO’s in the First Minister’s Department, Christopher Harvie is retiring from Parliament next year and arguably, Aileen Campbell has enough on her plate now, as a new mother (by the way, congrats Aileen!): with her and new Dad John Swinney, that would be a somewhat sleep-deprived department! Alasdair Allan, however, may be in with a shot.
From Stevenson’s own department, Shirley-Anne Somerville may be a risky appointment, but Joe FitzPatrick would be an interesting choice – as well as the first openly gay Scottish Minister since Iain Smith. As he’s aware of the brief, and has that extra bit of notability on his side, he might be a decent appointment.
So who else? I’d say that Joan’s other tip, Angela Constance, is in the running, doubtless along with Jamie Hepburn and Nigel Don. This means that there are a fair few runners and riders.
But there’s a fly in the ointment, and this relates to what might appear to be an obsession with the Greens’ opinion of any potential Transport Minister: any appointment has to get past Parliament, and right now, this represents choppy waters for the SNP.
The SNP have a maximum of 47 votes at their disposal, as we know. Labour, meanwhile, have 46, and if they actually turn up, will scent blood and vote against any choice. They haven’t done this at any ministerial vote yet, but Iain Gray is back in “If Ah wiz Furst Munistur” mode. They may be tempted this time.
The Tories won’t oppose the choice – they haven’t done yet, and the Conservatives’ view seems to be that if they have to choose between a Labour administration and an SNP one, the latter is the less unpalatable option. The question is, will they vote for the new Minister or abstain? They voted for Mike Russell, but might prefer to abstain.
The LibDems have a dilemma: their MSPs tend to gravitate towards Labour and it’s generally understood that Tavish Scott would happily kill Alex Salmond just to watch him die. So if Labour opt to vote against a successor, the LibDems would be tempted to follow. On the other hand, they haven’t actually opposed a Ministerial appointment yet, and it’s possible that knocking this one back would set off a chain of events which would lead to next year’s election being brought forward. Given the damage the LibDems have sustained over tuition fees, and their Coalition with the Tories, that outcome may be less than attractive. They have to work out which of the baser instincts is more important now: the drive for self-preservation, or the need to stick it to the SNP.
Then there are the Greens. It’s fair to say that relations between the SNP and Greens have degraded considerably since the zenith of 2007, and in particular, given Patrick Harvie’s reaction to Stevenson’s departure, they are incredibly exasperated with the SNP over its transport policy and its approach to climate change targets – both of which formed part of Stevenson’s balliwick. I don’t see them supporting any appointment, as they did in 2007. Instead, they’ll either abstain (as they have done on appointments after then) or oppose the appointment, though it’ll be for policy and principle rather than party political chicanery.
Now, if Labour abstain, any new Minister gets appointed almost by default: Labour abstaining on any issue hands the SNP a de facto majority of twelve.
If they oppose it, the Tories come into play.
If the Tories support an appointment, that’s up to 63 votes, and the new man or woman gets in unless Labour, the LibDems and either the Greens or Margo oppose it (and neither the Greens nor Margo support it).
If they abstain, however, then every other party has to abstain as well, or else the Minister cannot be appointed.
Now, at that point, if the FM loses effective control of who he can and can’t appoint to his Government, then that’s it – game over, especially as it’s generally been understood up to now that the Government stands together or falls together, so unless the other parties can then cobble together an administration and get it installed within 28 days of the SNP Government falling (and that’s unlikely: unless Labour can somehow get the Tories on board, the SNP and Tories have 63 votes on the Parliamentary Bureau to Labour and the LibDems’ 62, while the Greens and Margo don’t meet the five-member threshold for Bureau membership, so Bruce Crawford and David McLetchie could force MSPs to go to the country), we’re heading for an early election, doubtless at some point in February, which will not be viewed positively by the electorate.
And of course, the last time this became a distinct possibility – the rejection of the 2009 Budget – the opinion polls showed that it rebounded on those who tried to take advantage of the situation. Iain Gray and Tavish Scott might wish to bear that in mind.
By the end of the week, Scotland will have either a new Transport Minister or an early election on its hands. Fasten your seatbelts…