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by Kirsteen Paterson
20 June 2023
Can Lorna Slater survive vote of no confidence?

Lothian MSP Lorna Slater

Can Lorna Slater survive vote of no confidence?

Lorna Slater's political career is on the line.

The Lothian MSP was catapulted to government shortly after her election to the Scottish Parliament in 2021, when the Greens signed the Bute House Agreement with their larger allies, the SNP.

That post-election deal was supposed to stabilise government in the wake of a pre-election confidence vote called against then-deputy first minister John Swinney.

It was tabled by the Tories as part of a row over the provision of government legal advice papers to the committee handling the inquiry into allegations against Alex Salmond.

Swinney survived that vote after MSPs backed him by 65 votes to 57 against.

Now the Tories are behind another bid to unseat a serving government minister, this time over her stewardship of the troubled Deposit Return Scheme (DRS). 

The vote will take place this evening. So will Slater survive?

Government deal

The Bute House Agreement formalised support between the SNP and the Greens, giving the SNP, in playground parlance, hauners against confidence votes and similar challenges.

Success in these is a matter of numbers and a cast-iron deal with the Greens saw Sturgeon also secure a parliamentary majority which brought with it backing for SNP budgets.

The deal also took the Greens into government for the first time, giving them two ministerial positions. While veteran MSP Patrick Harvie became minister for zero carbon buildings, active travel and tenants' rights, Slater - a newbie to parliament - became minister for green skills, circular economy and biodiversity. And with that came responsibility for DRS.

The terms of the deal mean any two Green MSPs could hold the required two junior ministerial positions. Nominations to those roles have to be made after "consultation" with the Green co-leaders, who are currently Harvie and Slater, as do "alterations to the responsibilities of these ministerial offices" or the making of "new appointments" to them.

In other words, if First Minister Humza Yousaf wanted to remove Slater himself, he'd have to talk to her about it first. As it stands, Yousaf has repeatedly expressed his support for Slater, and indeed for the Bute House Agreement, which he has said is "worth its weight in gold".

And while other parties have blamed Slater for the troubles affecting DRS, Yousaf has laid the blame at Westminster's door - as has Slater herself.

Internal critics

However, the Bute House Agreement has been the subject of sustained criticism from some quarters. During the SNP leadership election, contender Ash Regan said was "not afraid" of the deal coming to an end, while rival Kate Forbes - who came within five per cent of defeating Yousaf - said she was "relaxed" about the prospect of leading a minority government.

The women also found fault with Slater's DRS, suggesting it would be bad for business in the form presented and calling for a pause.

In the end, the scheme has ended up on pause, pushed back to October 2025 at the earliest. But that's only after the Scottish Government refused to capitulate to the UK Government's request that it drop glass from the scheme in order to come into line with the similar initiative planned for England. If it had done so, and agreed to some other conditions on labelling and registration, Westminster would have agreed the necessary exemption from the Internal Market Act put in place to prevent trade barriers inside the UK after Brexit, but Scottish ministers said they could not agree because there were too many unknowns about the English DRS, which is at a far less advanced stage.

SNP backbencher Fergus Ewing has also been a vocal critic of the DRS. Could SNP rebels vote against Slater?

The biggest rebellion the party has ever seen came in December when nine of its MSPs voted against the Gender Recognition Reform Act, which ultimately passed but is now stuck in limbo due to yet another disagreement between the Scottish and UK governments. A date for the court challenge expected over that is pending.

What do the numbers say?

A betting person might put their money on Slater. Between the SNP and Greens, they have 71 MSPs, compared to 57 for the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems put together. If every 128 MSPs votes, the motion would need 65 backers to succeed - which would require eight SNP rebels. 

That number wouldn't be unprecedented, but it would be surprising if the threshold was met, given the destabilising effect a successful VONC would have on the administration.

However, every Conservative MSP supports the VONC, and Holyrood has learned that Labour and the Lib Dems will too, and that puts further pressure on Slater and the government. And so even if Slater does secure enough votes to defeat the VONC, that pressure may still be enough to see her leave office.

What do the Greens say?

Harvie has said Slater is the subject of "misogynistic" attacks and the party points out that the VONC motion was lodged on the same day MPs gathered to vote on sanctions against former PM Boris Johnson.

Green environment spokesperson Mark Ruskell said Slater has "done an incredible job" and said the Tories have a "brass neck", blaming that party for scuppering the DRS in the first place.

He said: "Lorna Slater has been a fine minister, she has massively increased funding for nature, she has put a ban on new waste incinerators and she's bringing in Scotland's first new national park in a generation. We should all get behind her and I'm sure she will survive this ridiculous stunt from the Tories and she will go on to achieve great things in government."

As for Slater herself, she says her party is "here to stay" in government: "When the Tories destroyed Scotland's Deposit Return Scheme, they destroyed jobs, they destroyed environmental progress, and they undermined Scotland's parliament.

"Whether they did it for a stunt so they could bring forward absurd motions like this, to distract us from the Tory horror show in Westminster, or because of their links to the industry, we will never know. But I do know that the only people who should be held responsible for the Tories' catastrophic decision making in Westminster are the Tories."

That was before she had to stand up and tell the Scottish Parliament that Circularity Scotland, the body set up to administer DRS, has gone into administration. 

 

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