Tom Peterkin: Nicola Sturgeon is good, but no King Midas

Nicola Sturgeon's duties as First Minister seem to include an unofficial role as the Scottish Government's troubleshooter. If the Scottish Government is engulfed in a crisis or a minister appears to be struggling, the First Minister has shown a penchant for riding to the rescue.

Nicola Sturgeon has often come to the rescue when crisis is brewing. Picture: PA
Nicola Sturgeon has often come to the rescue when crisis is brewing. Picture: PA

This week saw two classic examples of this Lone Ranger act.

Her first intervention came amid mounting anger over the Scottish Government computer glitch that has delayed hundreds of millions of pounds worth of Common Agricultural Policy payments. For weeks her rural affairs secretary, Richard Lochhead, had faced the wrath of farmers, whose businesses have been threatened by the failure to distribute the European Union cash.

Calls for the resignation of Lochhead, made by well-known farmers, added to the impression that he did not have a firm enough grip of a crisis, which could have devastating repercussions for the rural economy.

With NFU Scotland heading to Holyrood for a show-down with the First Minister, she managed to pluck £200 million from public funds to tie over farmers until the EU cash arrives.

It was a neat – if long overdue – manoeuvre to smooth over a mess that farmers had blamed on her own government.

In this instance, Sturgeon emerged smelling of roses, which is more than can be said of Lochhead, who remains surrounded by the stench of computer-inspired incompetence.

Yesterday saw the second example of Sturgeon attempting to calm some very troubled financial waters that the Scottish Government has found itself in.

Despite the Finance Secretary John Swinney being regarded as her most capable minister, she felt it necessary to be by his side when Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) statistics for 2014-15 were published.

This time, however, the political challenge facing the Government could not be fixed with a £200m bail-out.

This time it was up to the First Minister to put on a brave face as the public contemplate a Scottish deficit of almost £15bn and a financial picture that knocked massive holes in the Scottish Government’s case for independence.

As the consummate professional, Sturgeon did her best to put a positive gloss on a balance sheet with a huge hole knocked in it by the falling oil price.

Even in the knowledge the full impact of the plummeting oil price is only going to get worse, Sturgeon did her best to accentuate the strengths of the Scottish economy – arguing that the onshore sector had the potential to offset the poor performance of the offshore sector.

Putting herself at the forefront of government is a strategy that Sturgeon has adopted before.

Notably, she made it her personal mission to close the education attainment gap at a time when her education secretary Angela Constance was struggling with her brief.

Sturgeon’s strategy of exerting an ubiquitous influence on government attempts to capitalise on her unprecedented popularity and her reputation for competency.

Sometimes it works.

But not even the omnipresence of the First Minister can fully disguise the harsh economic realities, which are contained in the GERS report.

Overcoming the financial short-comings exposed by the figures requires a troubleshooter with the qualities of King Midas.