Rishi Sunak is proving SNP jibes about 'heartless' Tories simply are not true – John McLellan

It’s rare for Edinburgh Council to feature in First Minister’s Questions at the Scottish Parliament, certainly not raised by the SNP which, until Thursday, was part of the City Chambers’ administration for 15 years and shouldered responsibility for a damning record of maladministration, incompetence and injustice.

Rishi Sunak's measures to help people cope with rising cost of living are similar to the steps a Labour Chancellor would take (Picture: Justin Tallis/WPA pool/Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak's measures to help people cope with rising cost of living are similar to the steps a Labour Chancellor would take (Picture: Justin Tallis/WPA pool/Getty Images)

A few highlights include the statutory notices scandal in which corrupt council officers colluded with bent builders to fleece homeowners, with costs soaring to over £30m in 2010 for which two officials were jailed in 2015.

The misappropriation of funds connected to the council’s Edinburgh Lifelong Learning Partnership was first identified by whistle-blower John Travers in 2002, after which he and his family were subjected to an intense campaign of intimidation, and they are still fighting for justice and compensation 20 years on.

The death of senior social worker Sean Bell in 2020 before he was due to stand trial for serious sex offences lifted the lid on how senior managers had covered up years of abuse, to the extent of victimising other officers who raised concerns.

That led to a wider inquiry into the council’s management culture which, although it recognised the authority was not a safe environment for whistle-blowers, was dismissed as a whitewash by the very people who had blown the whistle.

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And that was before this year’s report into the mistreatment of vulnerable young people in the care of Edinburgh Secure Services’ units revealed “maladministration, criminality and injustice”.

The ruinously expensive Edinburgh tram project, now set to top over £1 billion, did result in parliamentary attention and the launch of a public inquiry, but that was called in 2014, before Scotland’s longest-serving First Minister took office.

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It’s not fanciful to speculate whether the inquiry has taken so long by accident, but the lack of curiosity or concern by the Scottish Government is itself curious. Perhaps an inquiry is needed into an inquiry that has already cost nearly £13m without publishing a word.

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Inquiry after inquiry, scandal after scandal, yet it took the shocking news that the SNP had been ousted from Edinburgh Council’s administration to feature in Thursday’s FMQs, cited by finger-wagging SNP deputy leader John Swinney to deflect attention away from questions about the Scottish Government’s problems with running Scotland’s railways.

Despite having served in a minority administration which was happy to do deals with the Conservatives to get anything done, it is now apparently beyond the pale for Labour council groups to do the same. To the best of my recollection, Mr Swinney didn’t spit “Vote SNP, get Tory” from 2007 to 2011, but how times have changed.

They have changed not least because the SNP has got used to winning, while other parties combining ─ as they did in Aberdeen in 2017 ─ to keep the SNP out of office is not something to which they are accustomed.

So, when three parties which represented a total of 57 per cent of the vote in Edinburgh at this month’s council elections came to an accommodation to approve an administration which left the SNP out in the cold, the furious sense of entitlement at both ends of the Royal Mile was on full display.

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The venomous ex-council leader Adam McVey raged on social media that the new administration was “held together by nothing more than a hatred of the SNP”, not an understanding between Labour, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives to advance political interests and better able to honour commitments given to their voters.

Indeed, so desperate were SNP councillors to avoid defenestration that they apparently took to telling outright lies to Labour councillors that the Conservative group would split because there was opposition to supporting Labour as the lead in a new administration.

Despite two new hard-left Labour councillors abstaining at the prospect of capable and experienced Conservatives filling two non-political roles, the new deal passed and a very subdued SNP group stared into their chicken casserole lunch in the members’ lounge after the meeting concluded.

It seems that the irony of calling for respectful debate, but expecting parties to unite in hatred of another as long as it’s the Conservatives, is lost on people like Adam McVey and John Swinney.

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For most Edinburgh residents ─ including, I suspect, a significant number of SNP voters ─ Thursday was a good day because the rejection of an SNP-Green administration means a sheaf of charges and damaging policies are now off the agenda.

As rising inflation threatens everyone’s income, there will be no workplace parking levy, and controlled parking schemes, where there is no proven demand, should be suspended.

There was a further irony at FMQs when Green MSP Ariane Burgess asked Mr Swinney how the Scottish Government was celebrating Scottish Bus Week, when the best possible news for Lothian Buses’ staff and passengers was that the SNP-Greens defeat in Edinburgh Council should mean the City Centre Transformation plan to break up cross-city bus routes which topped the company’s risk register will be consigned to history.

Not that he’ll get any political credit here ─ the quite-deranged Greens condemned him for encouraging the use of fossil fuels ─ but many Scots will welcome Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s £15bn energy support package which gives £400 to every household, a further £650 to people on means-tested benefits, and £300 to pensioners on low incomes in addition to the Winter Fuel Payment.

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If it seems like something a Labour Chancellor would do, that’s because it is, but this and the furlough scheme make the accusation of heartlessness harder to stick.

The road may be running out for the Prime Minister, and inflation may yet do for the Chancellor, but after what were undeniably dreadful election results for the Conservative Party in many Scottish councils, the thousands of people who support a measured alternative to Scotland’s centre-left establishment deserve effective representation.

Demonising all their representatives demonises those voters too and while it might make Messrs Swinney and McVey feel big, it belittles democracy.

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