Euan McColm: Can Mackay cope with bridge crisis?

Transport Minister Derek Mackay said that the repair of the Forth Road Bridge remains 'on track'. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Transport Minister Derek Mackay said that the repair of the Forth Road Bridge remains 'on track'. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
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HIS isn’t yet a household name, but the day’s coming when everyone will know exactly who Derek Mackay is. And, quite possibly, for all the wrong reasons.

The SNP’s transport minister has been the face of the Scottish government since the discovery of serious damage to the structure forced the closure of the Forth Road Bridge. So far, Mackay has struggled with the responsibility handed to him.

He has been accused of misleading parliament after telling MSPs that the damage recently identified was not in an area where repairs had been planned and then cancelled. In fact, repair work shelved in 2010 would have taken in a truss now cracked.

When Mackay admitted as much during a radio interview, MSPs who had listened to him at Holyrood the previous day were quick to demand an explanation.

The impression Mackay has given has been of a minister not quite in control of his brief. Crises can make heroes of politicians but they can also end careers, too. Mackay isn’t at that stage yet but the bridge controversy couldn’t have come at a worse time for this ambitious minister.

Although his profile has been relatively low so far, Mackay has played an increasingly significant role in the SNP in recent years. Since 2011, he has been the SNP’s business convener – the chairman of the party – with responsibility for overseeing the work of conference, the national council and the national executive committee. He is an extraordinarily powerful figure in the SNP hierarchy. Mackay, now 38, has been on something of a political journey. As a young activist, he was very much of the fundamentalist persuasion, where the cry “independence, nothing less” drowned out any possibility of pragmatism. But a period in the real – and frequently brutal – world of Renfrewshire Council (where Mackay served as leader for four years) cured him of his naivety and he entered Holyrood in 2011 as a fully signed-up member of the gradualist faction.

Mackay was talent-spotted quickly by Alex Salmond, who installed him as junior minister for local government. But Mackay also had a reputation, earned during his time in coalition with the Liberal Democrats in local government, as a skilled fixer.

When Salmond was keen to secure a second question about “devo-max” on the independence referendum ballot paper, he sent Mackay out to spin on his behalf. Mackay briefed journalists and pushed the two-question line with party colleagues. Although Salmond did not get his wish and the referendum was decided on a single question, Mackay impressed senior figures.

Nicola Sturgeon is also a fan and – according to SNP sources – she is watching very closely his handling of the bridge crisis not just to ensure the matter is dealt with, but to size him up for potential future roles.

There is a growing feeling among senior SNP figures that the party has to renew its focus on the domestic agenda, moving the debate away from the constitution and on to issues such as education and health. Rumours that John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister – who has held the finance brief since 2007 – might be moved to education after the 2016 election show no sign of going away.

But for Sturgeon to have the confidence to move Swinney, she would have to be certain she could replace him with a dependable minister.

According to some party sources, Mackay is the most likely candidate for such a move. But much will depend on how the transport minister sees out the current crisis.

Mackay, according to one key SNP figure, is auditioning for a bigger role in government. If Sturgeon remains convinced that she can trust him, then Mackay’s future looks bright, even though his initial handling of the bridge closure has been poor.

The SNP has done a lot with a little in recent years in terms of the party’s reputation for competence. A very small team – Salmond, Sturgeon, Swinney, Westminster leader Angus Robertson, and a few officials – have been entirely responsible for building and cementing the impression that the SNP has real breadth and depth.

But Salmond is now a law unto himself, seemingly concerned more with settling old scores with the BBC and complaining that his referendum victory was stolen by the establishment than with new thinking on policy. And the departure of communications director Kevin Pringle has further weakened the upper echelon of the party.

If Sturgeon is to sustain her party’s reputation then she needs to develop junior ministers, making cabinet secretaries out of them.

Mackay finds himself in the position of being top of Sturgeon’s list of “promotable” MSPs (This is a fact not lost on some of his more brittle colleagues who will, without much persuasion, suggest that the transport minister is too big for his boots).

But Sturgeon is not a sentimental politician. She may have a more empathetic personality than her predecessor but those who’ve worked with both say Salmond is the less ruthless of the pair.

Where the former First Minister might have stood defiantly by a failing member of his team, Sturgeon is more likely to take difficult decisions about personnel.

The patronage of the First Minister may currently be sustaining Mackay’s political career but there may come a point at which Sturgeon can no longer protect him.

The closure of the Forth Road Bridge has already had a massive impact on the country’s road network and pressure is likely to increase as the Christmas holidays approach.

Mackay will be the focus for public frustration if traffic jams mar holiday travel. And he’ll carry the can if the bridge is not re-opened swiftly.

Derek Mackay has spent most of his Holyrood career in the background, fixing party problems and helping maintain discipline in the ranks. Now he’s on the front line of a crisis, and his handling of it will make or break his career. «