Iain Macwhirter Iain Macwhirter

John Swinney’s wounds are self-inflicted

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John Swinney has said that he will make sure the public sees enough of him over the election campaign. But do they want to? In the latest Survation poll, conducted for True North over the weekend he is now the third most popular leader in this race of also-rans, with an approval rating of -7.  Sir Keir Starmer is top and the Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, is second most popular at -3.

This fall from grace may not be unconnected with Mr Swinney’s much-criticised defence last week of his disgraced ‘friend and colleague’ Michael Matheson, of iPad fame. Mr Matheson had been censured by the Holyrood Standards Committee for trying to claim, under his parliamentary expenses, £11,000 in roaming charges run up by his sons while on a holiday in Morocco in December 2022. After he was exposed he paid the cash back.

However, he admitted lying and the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body said he had broken the ministerial code. The Standards Committee then ruled that he should be suspended for a month and lose pay for 54 weeks.

The scandal should have ended there and then. Matheson could have quietly served his sentence, a singularly lenient one in the eyes of many, and been back in Holyrood before polling day. However, John Swinney chose to attack the punishment as ‘excessive’ and accused the standards committee of being ‘prejudiced’ and ‘partisan’ and bringing the parliament into ‘disrepute’. This was because one Tory member of the committee, Annie Wells, had voiced criticism of Matheson before the committee met to consider his fate. Mind you, just about everyone from the then First Minister,  Humza Yousaf, down had expressed views about Matheson, so this was perhaps unsurprising. The Standards Committee voted unanimously for docking Matheson’s pay for 54 days, meaning the SNP MSPs on the committee voted for it.

But if Mr Swinney had legitimate criticisms about the conduct of the cross party ethics committee, this was hardly the time to express them. The First Minister’s defence of the indefensible overshadowed the SNP general election launch and has gone on to dominate the first full week of campaigning. SNP candidates, pounding the payments, were gobsmacked. Why didn’t he just accept the ruling and move one? Matheson was surely lucky to keep his seat in parliament. Had he been an MP in Westminster he would likely have suffered a recall vote and been ejected from parliament, like the former SNP MP, Margaret Ferrier, who was caught breaking Covid lockdown rules. 

Today’s vote on the Standard Committee’s sanctions should have been a formality, a mere footnote to the general election news coverage. Instead John Swinney effectively turned it into a vote of no confidence in himself.

Yesterday it was understood that the SNP group were going to back the sanctions and defy their leader. But in a late development journalists learned that they would not in fact vote for the punishment demanded by the committee today and would instead vote on an amendment criticising the conduct of the Standards watchdog. In the event, the SNP group abstained even on the motion as amended.  Make of that what you will. The Conservative leader, Douglas Ross said Swinney had ‘U-turned on his own U-turn’. What the voting public will make of it is anyone’s guess – but it won’t be pretty.  The story will dominate another news cycle and it has left the SNP on the wrong side of Holyrood’s accepted disciplinary process. 

Matheson did survive the second vote today on a motion tabled by the Scottish Tory leader, Douglas Ross, calling for him to resign. Puzzlingly, the Scottish Green Party MSPs decided to vote against his defenestration. This is almost as incomprehensible as Swinney’s defence of his miscreant minister. If Matheson had been a Tory MSP caught fiddling his expenses the Greens would almost certainly have joined Labour in calling for him to resign. Twenty years ago, the Scottish Tory leader, David McLetchie, resigned as leader over a fistful of wrongly claimed taxi chits. Matheson tried to defraud taxpayers of the equivalent of a year’s state pension and lied about it afterwards. 

But ‘Honest’ John Swinney is the real loser in this affair. The political damage from Swinney’s defence of the indefensible is clear from the latest shocking opinion polls. Survation for True North puts Labour now 4 points ahead of the SNP on 36 per cent. According to Professor John Curtice, this could deliver 48 seats for Anas Sarwar’s party, while the SNP would be reduced to 16 from the 43 they currently hold. Other polls predict an even worse result for the SNP on July 4th.

After John Swinney resigned as leader of the SNP 20 years ago, the party went on to win only six seats against Labour’s 41 in the 2005 general election. History may not be about to repeat itself, but John Swinney is certainly giving it his best shot. 

Written by
Iain Macwhirter

Iain Macwhirter is a former BBC TV presenter and was political commentator for The Herald between 1999 and 2022. He is an author of Road to Referendum and Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won a Referendum but Lost Scotland.

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