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by Louise Wilson
09 May 2022
Sketch: Ivan McKee toes the line

Credit: Iain Green

Sketch: Ivan McKee toes the line

Poor Ivan McKee. When he took the job, he probably didn’t think he’d be left playing the violin while the ferry was sinking beneath him. Yet there he was, summoned to the chamber, insisting that we have always been at war with Eurasia.

The ferry fiasco has been brewing for some time. Already the two new vessels for CalMac had been delayed, despite one of them being officially launched by the First Minister four years ago – painted windows and too-short cabling and all. But the Auditor General for Scotland – it’s always the quiet ones – threw a match on the pyre when he found “multiple failings” and “a lack of transparency” in the procurement process.

And so, questions were mounting for the Scottish Government (not) to answer. You can imagine the scene just before McKee entered the chamber, being pep-talked by his special adviser.

“What is the key line for you to get out, Ivan?” his SpAd would have asked.

“Thorough search,” the minister might have dutifully replied. “We conducted a thorough search and could not find that one key document which might actually harm my superiors. But we are also absolutely transparent.”

The SpAd nods along. “And how many times should you crowbar those phrases into your answer?” the SpAd asks as he does up McKee’s tie and dusts down his lapels.

“As many times as possible, even if it doesn’t make sense and even if I’m at risk of sounding like a broken record,” says McKee, earning himself a pat on the head and a “good boy” from the SpAd.

And true to rehearsal, when Labour’s Daniel Johnson tried to ask about the “lost documentation”, McKee insisted the government had been “absolutely transparent”. There was “a clear audit trail of keys decisions and the basis on which they were taken,” he told MSPs. Apparently he had not bothered to actually read the Audit Scotland report and the line about the missing paper trail, perhaps just taking his boss’s word for it that everything was fine.

But the minister’s response caused a bit of a stramash in the chamber. McKee trucked on. “A thorough search has been conducted,” he said, leading to shouts of “not really!” from the opposition.

“No ministerial response to the submission of 8 October 2015 has been located,” McKee finished. So, there was a “clear audit trail” apart from the one document in which ministers actually greenlighted the multi-million contract – you know, the one document that matters.

Johnson proved unwilling to submit to the Thought Police in the same way McKee had. “I don’t quite know how to respond to that answer,” he said. He went on to call for an investigation into whether the law was broken.

The government had “cooperated fully” with Audit Scotland, McKee insisted, answering a question only he had heard and not the question Johnson had asked.

Johnson tried again: “The problem is that for transparency the documents need to be there, and they are not, and the law requires it.”

“A thorough search for the documents was undertaken and no ministerial response to that submission has been located,” repeated McKee. But by this point, he was starting to feel the pressure. His answers were not going down well. But thankfully, he still had his trump card.

 “What is important to recognise – and Daniel Johnson and other members in the chamber fail to recognise – is that Ferguson, seven years after those events, is still employing hundreds and hundreds of people, still employing skilled people, still contributing to the local economy and still keeping…” The noise in the chamber begins rising again as opposition MSPs can’t believe what they are hearing.

“I know the members don’t think Scotland’s industrial base is important, but if they maybe want to be quiet for a minute and listen to this answer, because this is important. It is important to the people of Scotland, the people of Inverclyde, that that yard is still employing hundreds of people and is keeping commercial shipbuilding on the Clyde alive.” And his transformation into government parrot is complete. He’ll take that cracker now.

Cue Stuart McMillan, ready to bring it home: “Judging by Daniel Johnson’s comments, he would probably rather the yard actually wasn’t there, and the jobs weren’t their either.” The parliament’s pied piper, trying his best to lure the rats away, would really like a promotion, please.

New MSP Paul McLennan wanted in on the act, too. “We can all agree that transparency and accountability are key in government.”

“Maybe answer the questions then,” yells Jamie Greene from the Tory frontbench.

McLennan barrels on regardless: “I don’t think the Scottish Government needs lessons on that from any member of opposition, to be quite frank.” Ah, of course. When all else fails, Boris Johnson is the best stick to beat away criticism. Because even if the SNP is doing terribly, at least they aren’t Boris.

Read the most recent article written by Louise Wilson - Legal challenge threat to ferry contracts revealed by Douglas Ross

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