Okay, so I lambasted Stewart Stevenson’s performance on Newsnight Scotland last Monday night, and now I’m feeling a tad guilty. But actually, I thought he came out the next day saying all the right things and – crucially – back in touch with his brief and the situation. If you’ll pardon the pun, I reckoned he had done more than enough to weather the storm.
So his resignation yesterday was unexpected but not inconsistent with the measure of the man. As Will Patterson points out in his excellent blogpost, previous Labour Ministers had been guilty of much more heinous crimes and no resignations followed. But Stewart Stevenson is an honourable man. He sensed he had become the story, that the opposition parties would not let up, and for the good of the SNP Government and the independence cause, he had to fall on his sword. He took responsibility for the seriousness of the situation and for that, Stewart Stevenson deserves huge plaudits.
Joan McAlpine is right to promote the opportunity for the SNP to bring a woman into the Cabinet and I’d agree that Shirley-Anne Somerville is a very likely contender. Though perhaps not for the transport brief, even though she has been its parliamentary liaison member in recent years. To coin a phrase, this is no time for a novice and Salmond might prefer to switch Roseanna Cunningham sideways into this Ministerial portfolio and promote Ms Somerville to environment instead. She would be a great asset to the team whichever berth she occupies.
But there is a much more interesting consequence of Stewart Stevenson’s resignation and it flows from his very personal connection to the First Minister. Eddie Barnes touches on it in his article in today’s Scotland on Sunday and it is also evident in the tone of the First Minister’s response to Stevenson’s resignation letter.
Stewart Stevenson is probably Alex Salmond’s closest ally and personal friend in the party. They have been together through thick and thin for over 30 years, Salmond in the foreground, Stevenson a few steps behind, willing and able to serve in whatever capacity his friend, and his party, needed most. This resignation – above possibly any other – hurts Salmond more than it damages the SNP.
Stevenson was always a weak link, for a number of reasons. His closeness to Salmond and the huge personal debt owed – as the anonymous source in Eddie Barnes’ piece indicates – has oft been cited by mischief makers as the reason for his promotion, first to the seat of Banff and Buchan and then into government. Stevenson has never been one of the party’s darlings but the doubting of the man’s talents is way off the mark. No, he is not a natural politician but he is clever, knowledgeable, diligent and above all, loyal. On certain parts of his brief, he has been a real success.
But not all. The failure of Transport Scotland on key and local infrastructure projects and issues has caused real problems for many backbench MSPs on wafer thin majorities. Appeals to the Minister went unheeded. People felt his hands off approach to such a key strategic body was wrong and it caused many to diss him – pretty openly – to all and sundry. As the burd has already pointed out, it was his portfolio and the skewering of Transport Scotland by the Parliament’s Audit Committee that presented Hugh Henry with a chance to shine in the media and public eye. Stevenson all but delivered two important political prizes into Henry’s lap. Not good.
What this means is that in crucial weeks like this, Stewart Stevenson had few allies in the wider parliamentary group or party to rely on. Yet, had Weathergate happened last year, Stevenson would not have gone, no matter how loudly the opposition parties brayed. Because he enjoyed the total support of the First Minister.
Salmond’s grip on his party has not just been iron, it has been steely. Such has been the extent of loyalty and trust commanded and demanded, that very few would have countenanced even idle gossip about such an option. Yet this weekend, Salmond must have tested the temperature of his party and realised that Stevenson had to be allowed to resign.
It hints at a chink, if no more than that, in Salmond’s hold on the imaginations and in the affections of the SNP. Most members would realise that the loss of his transport Minister would represent a very heavy personal blow. It would also signal the piercing of the leader’s political infallibility and impregnability.
The fact that the First Minister accepted Stewart Stevenson’s resignation suggests that the party’s relationship with its leader has shifted in recent months. How interesting.