John Swinney’s response to Michael Matheson scandal shows he's as big a liability as Humza Yousaf – Brian Wilson

First Minister’s sanctimony and self-regard were on full display as he rejected the Standards Committee’s judgment on Michael Matheson’s iPad expenses claim

I don’t know what image the phalanx of Nationalist MSPs who accompanied Michael Matheson into the Holyrood chamber thought they were presenting, but I doubt it was the one they conveyed. Rather than a noble act in a just cause, it had the appearance of a fading mafia closing ranks to protect one of their own. Which is exactly what it was – though only as a prelude to the shameful and shameless performance of John Swinney.

The more thoughtful among those who hailed Mr Swinney’s political resurrection a few short weeks ago must already be having buyer’s remorse. If he is less of a liability than his predecessor, he has yet to show it – and with an objectionable layer of sanctimonious self-regard thrown in. Trying to turn the findings of the Holyrood Standards Committee into an issue of process, in order to feign outrage over its conclusions rather than accept them and act accordingly, was insulting to both public and parliament.

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What message did the First Minister’s belligerent defence of his “friend and colleague” send to the two SNP MSPs on the committee, both loyal apparatchiks, who swallowed hard and made most of its findings unanimous? How damning must the evidence have been to achieve that outcome?

John Swinney isn't shaping up to be any better a First Minister than his predecessor Humza Yousaf (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)John Swinney isn't shaping up to be any better a First Minister than his predecessor Humza Yousaf (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
John Swinney isn't shaping up to be any better a First Minister than his predecessor Humza Yousaf (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
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The only point of dispute was how many days Mr Matheson should be suspended for, a relatively modest calculation compared to the fact that “the unanimous view of the committee” was to “recommend sanctions” including loss of salary for 54 days, which is effectively a £12,000 fine on top of losing his ministerial job.

For Mr Swinney to ignore the cross-party unanimity on these uniquely serious conclusions in order to pretend that the process as a whole was discredited by the advance “prejudice” of a Tory MSP is utterly bizarre; the posture of a small-minded partisan whose tribal loyalty transcends any sense of proportion or respect for the institution.

The Tory MSP about whom Mr Swinney did not complain, Oliver Mundell, said: “It is clear to me from the evidence… that those who have sent us here would not look kindly at a short suspension for one of our own when many in the real world would have faced the very real possibility of losing their job in the same circumstances”. Or worse, he might have added.

That seemed a very calm and reasonable summary which, I suspect, the vast majority of voters would agree with. Yet the First Minister of Scotland then made it his mission to reject not only Mr Mundell’s reasoning and also the committee’s conclusion but also to re-run the validity of the whole case.

Mr Swinney repeatedly defended Matheson on grounds of substance as well as process. “There was no cost to the public purse,” he said over and over again. He used this phrase six times, so it was certainly not by inadvertence: “He has paid all the roaming costs in question; there is no cost to the public purse.”

Well, let’s be blunt. There is no cost to the public purse because Mr Matheson was found out, after he had claimed and received money to which he was not entitled. Is the First Minister of Scotland seriously laying down the doctrine that all such offenders can redeem themselves through pay-back after being caught? It would certainly be one way of emptying the prisons.

The basic facts of this case are stark and need never have been made complicated, once exposed. Mr Matheson claimed almost £11,000 in parliamentary expenses which he could not conceivably have believed to be legitimate. He had made a mistake with roaming charges. Bad luck. Anyone could do it. Let it be a lesson to others. But swallow hard and pay up.

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If he had dealt with it in that way, he would still be Cabinet Secretary for something or other. Instead, he tried to make the taxpayer pay for his mistake and claimed – incorrectly – that the costs were incurred on parliamentary business. In the polite language of the Standards Committee: “The assurance he provided that the claim was made for a purpose permitted under the (parliamentary expenses) scheme was unsound.”

It was Mr Matheson and nobody else who then introduced his family into the equation in an attempt to muddy the waters and save his job. This was totally unnecessary since, whether the stuff about watching football was true or not, it in no way affected the basic fact that the claim was illegitimate, regardless of how the cost arose. To me, Mr Matheson’s worst offence was to publicly involve his family.

Then we come to Mr Swinney’s sanctimony which demands that his every word and action should be accepted in the lofty terms which he defines. “I do not think anybody could look at me and think that I am not an individual who cares deeply about the reputation and integrity of this parliament,” he intoned.

Well, dream on, John. Some of us have longer memories than is convenient to your current posture as a “unifier” which this episode hasn’t done much to enhance. It takes some brass neck, in the midst of an audacious effort to undermine the parliament’s efforts to deal with an egregious offence, to present himself as the unco’ guid who “cares deeply” about its “reputation and integrity”.

Then we came to the Sermon on the Mount and “the fundamental Christian maxim of doing unto others what you would have done unto yourself”. Mr Swinney declared grandly: “That is the issue that parliament has to confront.”

No it isn’t. The more mundane issue is that one of his ministers tried to secure £11,000 of public money that he wasn’t entitled to. I feel sure there are other Biblical injunctions which could be called into play.



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