Kate Forbes stood in at short notice on Budget day – and her performance was the only bright spot in a sorry saga for the SNP, writes Ian Swanson.
IT always comes as a surprise that top politicians – whose daily work means accepting responsibility for making big decisions affecting millions of people – can be so stupid about the way they conduct their private lives.
The resignation of Derek Mackay as Finance Secretary following revelations that he had bombarded as 16-year-old schoolboy with inappropriate messages – including one calling him “cute” and invitations to a rugby match and to dinner – caused shockwaves at Holyrood.
There was sympathy for the boy and his family over the trauma caused to them. There was no doubt about the unacceptability of Mr Mackay’s behaviour and the fact that a promising political career was now over.
Mr Mackay was popular with MSPs in all parties and he was a key figure for the SNP over many years, as well as being seen as a strong contender to take over from Nicola Sturgeon as leader when the time comes.
But his social media messages to the 16-year-old boy – and further claims about him pestering a married 25-year-old SNP member, including asking for “naughty pics” – means that is all now at an end.
Timing couldn’t have been worse
Whether the scandal has any long-term effect on the SNP remains to be seen, but it comes just ahead of the trial of former First Minister Alex Salmond next month on a number of charges, all of which he denies. These are difficult days for the SNP.
Also, the timing of the Mackay revelations, forcing him to step down hours before he was due to present the Budget in the Scottish Parliament, could not have been worse.
The one bright spot in the whole affair was the performance of Mr Mackay’s deputy, Public Finance Minister Kate Forbes, who stepped into his shoes at short notice to deliver the Budget. She showed herself to be not only capable and intelligent but also quick on her feet and able to fend off opposition attacks with skill and confidence.
She is now in charge of trying to negotiate with opposition parties in a bid to secure enough support to get the minority SNP Government’s tax and spending proposals passed by the Parliament.
If she passes that test, she could well be handed the Finance Secretary role on a permanent basis – an impressive achievement for a 29-year-old who only became an MSP at the last election less than four years ago and a junior minister just 18 months ago.
She is already being spoken of as a possible future SNP leader. There are not many other obvious potential successors to Ms Sturgeon among the party’s MSPs, though Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf and Constitution Secretary Michael Russell are sometimes mentioned.
There is clearly no vacancy at the moment, but parties are always stronger if they have senior figures who would be ready, willing and able to take on the top job if and when the need arises. Edinburgh South West SNP MP Joanna Cherry and the party’s former Westminster leader Angus Robertson, also now based in Edinburgh, are both able and ambitious politicians who could also be seen as future leaders.
The disadvantage that they both face is that they are not currently in the Scottish Parliament, but that problem could be overcome in time.
Mr Mackay’s downfall is a personal tragedy for him and his family, but the political world keeps on turning and new faces will be found to fill the empty spaces.