JACK McConnell, the First Minister, intervened from South Africa yesterday to demand that Ross Finnie, his embattled rural affairs minister, apologise immediately for calling Britain’s top business leader an "English prat".
Mr McConnell, who is in Johannesburg for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, was furious when he heard that Mr Finnie had insulted Digby Jones, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, at a dinner on Friday evening.
The First Minister spoke by phone to Jim Wallace, the deputy First Minister and Liberal Democrat leader, yesterday, demanding that Mr Finnie apologise as soon as possible. Sources close to the First Minister made it clear last night that Mr Finnie would not be sacked as a result of his insulting remarks to Mr Jones.
However, this is the latest in a series of blunders from the Liberal Democrat, which have raised serious questions over his long-term future as a minister.
According to the Scotland on Sunday, Mr Finnie was introduced to Mr Jones by Iain MacMillan, CBI Scotland’s director, minutes after he had delivered a controversial speech in Glasgow warning that the Executive faced a backlash from Scottish businesses. The pair had a lengthy conversation during which the minister is understood to have made the remark.
The minister initially declined to apologise, but after pressure from Mr McConnell and Mr Wallace, he issued a short statement saying that he had been wrong and that he had apologised to Mr Jones. He said: "I have written to both Digby Jones and Iain MacMillan apologising for any offence I may have caused."
Mr McConnell said: "Ross Finnie has recognised that he needed to apologise and has done so. He has an important job as minister for the environment and rural affairs and he should be allowed to get on with it."
Mr Jones said after the event: "I was very surprised to hear the minister’s comment. In public life these things happen, but hey, that is what I am paid for. I think that people should draw a line under this and move on."
Mr Finnie may count himself fortunate to get away with an apology. Four years ago, Tony Bolton, an English labourer working in Dundee, was awarded 2,500 in compensation from an industrial tribunal after being called "an English prat" by Scottish co-workers. The tribunal ruled that the term was offensive and racist.
Lib Dem leaders will be hopeful that Mr Finnie has done enough to draw a line under the affair and prevent it from dominating the political agenda this week, the parliament’s first after the long summer recess.
Unfortunately for Mr Finnie, this is just the latest in a series of mishaps that have seriously damaged the political career of the one minister in the Executive who emerged from the parliament’s first two years with his reputation enhanced. Mr Finnie was credited with taking the Scottish agriculture industry through the foot-and-mouth outbreak quicker and better than his English counterparts.
But in the past year, he has faced repeated calls for his resignation from opposition parties, particularly over trials of genetically modified crops and contamination in Glasgow’s water supplies. Despite his apology yesterday, and Mr McConnell’s insistence that the spat with Mr Jones was over, Mr Finnie faced further calls for him to quit last night.
Andrew Wilson, the SNP enterprise spokesman, said the minister had become an embarrassment and had to resign. He said: "His comment was rude, crude and verging on the bigoted. It is time that he realised that all patience with him has now run out. He should resign and save himself and the nation any further embarrassment."
Mr Finnie was also widely criticised for the way he reacted to the discovery of the cryptosporidium parasite in Glasgow’s water supply last month.
Earlier this year, he came under intense pressure over a series of GM crop trials in the north of Scotland. This issue resurfaced yesterday in another dose of bad news for the environment minister, when it emerged that the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs in London had put out a statement giving the go-ahead to 16 GM crop trials in England and two in Scotland - even though the Scottish trials fall under Mr Finnie’s remit.
The impression from the press release was not only that the decision had been made, but it had been made in London, leaving Mr Finnie a powerless bystander. An Executive spokesman insisted yesterday that the Whitehall department had "jumped the gun" by assuming that Mr Finnie would give the go-ahead to the trials when he had not yet reached a decision. But the incident will only add to the impression that he is being dictated to by Labour figures in Edinburgh and London.