How the SNP's general election campaign launch was blown off course

John Swinney was bombarded with questions about the Michael Matheson scandal

Elections can be chaotic and unpredictable. Politicians might have their pre-prepared soundbites, but events have a habit of getting in the way. Just ask First Minister John Swinney.

The SNP’s general election campaign launch, which took place in a rain-lashed hotel on Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, was completely overshadowed by the ongoing Michael Matheson saga.

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Mr Swinney was bombarded with questions about the scandal. Was he defending Mr Matheson because he didn’t want a by-election? Did he fear the issue would end up costing his party votes? Should Mr Matheson resign as an MSP?

John Swinney gives a speech at the launch of the SNP's general election campaign at the Apex Grassmarket Hotel in Edinburgh. Picture: Michael Boyd/PA WireJohn Swinney gives a speech at the launch of the SNP's general election campaign at the Apex Grassmarket Hotel in Edinburgh. Picture: Michael Boyd/PA Wire
John Swinney gives a speech at the launch of the SNP's general election campaign at the Apex Grassmarket Hotel in Edinburgh. Picture: Michael Boyd/PA Wire

Holyrood’s standards committee had earlier recommended Mr Matheson, the former health secretary, be barred from the Scottish Parliament for 27 sitting days – or around nine weeks – due to his handling of a near-£11,000 data bill on his parliamentary iPad.

Its verdict included a recommendation to strip him of his salary for 54 days. Mr Matheson said the sanctions were “excessive” and “unfair”. He has resisted calls to resign. Mr Swinney said the process had been “prejudiced”.

He pointed to comments made by committee member Annie Wells, a Tory MSP. She previously described Mr Matheson’s explanation as “riddled with lies”.

Mr Swinney said Holyrood was “in danger of falling into disrepute by the way this issue is being handled”. He added: “If a journalist was facing a situation where they were appearing at a disciplinary panel, and one of the members of the panel had expressed an opinion and prejudged that case, that journalist would be mightily aggrieved about the unfairness of what they faced – and the NUJ [National Union of Journalists] would have something to say about it too. Same thing applies in parliament.

"Now, I accept that Michael Matheson has made mistakes. I accept that there’s a process that has to be gone through – I just want to make sure that it’s fair, and it’s fair for everybody.”

The First Minister felt so strongly about the issue that he briefly slipped into the third person. “I could just turn a blind eye to that and say, ‘Ok, let’s just ignore all that’,” he said. “That’s not John Swinney. That’s not what you get, and I’m not going to make any apology.”

In total, Mr Swinney fielded around a dozen questions on the issue during his party’s election launch. It drowned out the rest of his message about the “disastrous” Tory government and the SNP’s “energetic, optimistic” campaign.

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I asked the First Minister about a poll published in The Scotsman earlier this month, which showed 65 per cent of Scots believe Mr Matheson should resign as an MSP, while just 15 per cent think he should not. Why are the public wrong?

“I’m not saying anything about that,” Mr Swinney responded. “My warning to parliament is about parliament’s reputation and its business. In my view, it’s on course to damage its reputation by presiding over an unfair process. That’s my point.”

Asked if the public are right that Mr Matheson should resign, the First Minister said: “The point I’m making is that parliament’s got to get it’s house in order. That’s what I’m saying.”

He said he had not questioned the comprehensive, 174-page report into the saga by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. “I’ve just said parliament should preside over a fair process, and I’ve not had a credible answer to the point that I’ve made so far,” he added.

The SPCB report makes for eye-opening reading. It shows Mr Matheson was repeatedly asked by officials to provide assurances that he was satisfied the iPad’s huge data usage was for parliamentary business.

Very early on, one official told him it was more consistent with “streaming media” such as films or YouTube videos, rather than answering emails. Of course, in the end, it turned out his sons had used the iPad as a hotspot to watch football.

Mr Swinney said the former health secretary was a “good man who made mistakes”, adding: “He’s apologised for them and he’s paid back all the costs of what was involved. He’s sacrificed his Cabinet position, he lost his Cabinet position because of all of this.

"There’s obviously a process to be undertaken. But what I want is, I want people to be treated fairly, because I would want that done to me, and I don’t think it’s been done in this particular [case].”

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Earlier, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross had accused Mr Matheson of “deceit and abuse of trust” and said his party will seek to push him to resign in a vote next week. Asked if Mr Matheson should quit if this motion passes, Mr Swinney said: “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Put to him that the SNP’s campaign had got off to a chaotic start, the First Minister said it had actually been a “great day”.

Just a few hours later, Police Scotland confirmed it had sent a report to prosecutors in relation to Peter Murrell, the former SNP chief executive charged with embezzling party funds. Nicola Sturgeon, who is his wife, and former SNP treasurer Colin Beattie remain under investigation.

At the launch event, Mr Swinney made much of a recent poll showing he was the most popular political leader in Scotland, “dwarfing the people who ask me questions in parliament on a weekly basis". The YouGov survey in question found his net favourability was minus three; in other words, 35 per cent of voters had a favourable view of him, compared to 38 per cent who had an negative opinion. The same poll found Labour had opened up a 10-point lead over the SNP at Westminster.

Mr Swinney faces an uphill battle. But July 4 is six weeks away. That’s a long time in politics – and an even longer time during a general election campaign.



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