Instead, it has turned into a catastrophe for the taxpayer – with the price tripling to nearly £300 million – and for islanders whose vital ferry services have been much disrupted by the lack of two ships that are five years late and counting. There will be many reasons behind such an unacceptable state of affairs – Scotland’s auditor general is currently investigating the procurement process – but a new report by the Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit Committee identifies one key factor that can be laid directly at Nicola Sturgeon’s door.
In 2015, the First Minister went to the Ferguson Marine shipyard to give her personal seal of approval to the announcement that it was the preferred bidder for the contract to build the ships for Scottish Government-owned CMAL, which buys vessels for CalMac.
However, according to the cross-party committee’s report, this decision was premature. “The committee is not convinced that such a public announcement was necessary or indeed appropriate for this project, especially at that time, given the considerable work and negotiation that was required before CMAL could take a decision to award the formal contract,” it said.
“We believe that this almost certainly weakened CMAL’s negotiating position with [Ferguson Marine], particularly as important details of the contract were still being worked out.”
There were good reasons why the SNP wanted Ferguson’s to get the job, given the hope that it would save the troubled shipyard. Sturgeon said at the time that “this contract will see the 150-strong workforce retained and more staff taken on at the shipyard, underlining our commitment to creating the vital jobs needed to boost local economies and help stimulate growth across Scotland”.
However, it appears that, in a rush to get some good news both for the shipyard’s workers and the SNP, Sturgeon and co were willing to run roughshod over proper process. Whether CMAL could have negotiated a better contract and how much of a difference that would have made is hard to say. But it provides an object lesson about the dangers of politicians who think in terms of headlines and forget the importance of attention to detail.