In his desperate struggle to recover and defend a reputation now driven to a low discount by an unable and controversial performance at Education and in the necessary decorum and fair treatment of others as a cabinet minister, Argyll’s embattled MSP, Michael Russell has had recourse, yet again, to the bathtubs of Dunoon.
While the image of his overheated and now befurred visage beneath a steamie turban is the stuff of cartoons, the reality is every bit as bizarre, if less visually glorious.
The ‘bathtubs’ are the Argyll Ferries passenger boats, plying the route between G0urock and Dunoon with 60 sailings a day but christened ‘the bathtubs’ by the Dunoon Ferries Action Group campaigners, determined to achieve a return to the wholly uneconomic vehicle and passenger service provision between the two town centres.
Mr Russell has asked the Ombudsman for Scottish Public Services to investigate a fellow department of government, Transport Scotland, for alleged ‘maladministration and negligence’ in its management of the publicly funded ferry service between Gourock and Dunoon.
The law of the European Union, to which Mr Russell and his Scottish Government colleagues remain determined, with or without legal advice, that an independent Scotland should join, was what forced this same government to remove the subsidy from the vehicle element of the former service, making the enterprise financially unsustainable. The result was the advent of the passenger only service to which the Dunoon campaigners object.
The route is, of course, also serviced by the almost 100% reliable Western Ferries vehicle and passenger service which operates between Dunoon and Gourock, but not via the town centres.
For Argyll showed earlier this year that the two services together see Dunoon grossly over supplied with ferry sailings for the evidenced demand. A city dweller could not catch a bus as frequently as Dunoon residents can take a ferry – but still the whinges come and still the reputation of a perfectly serviceable ferry is abused in the interests of a campaign that cannot succeed on the key ground of irrecoverable cost.
Early proof of stress in Russell’s first scalp
In an earlier populist move this year and regardless of his own government being the agent of this change, Mr Russell sided with the campaigners and began characteristically yelling in the media ‘Heads must roll’.
The head he was after – and got – was that of the Group CEO of Davie MacBrayne Limited, the parent company of ferry operators Argyll Ferries and Caledonian MacBrayne. All three companies are directly owned by the Scottish Government and Mr Russell is, by his ministerial position, a shareholder of all three.
With a superannuated ferry captain in tow, Mr Russell demanded a meeting with Mr Robertson over the Argyll Ferries service – and, in what should have been an early warning sign of a minister stressed to the point of loss of control, his behaviour at this meeting was, from the outset, shouting and roaring for Mr Robertson’s resignation.
Scalp number two, a minister out of control and collateral damage to the FM
In the end, a weary and demotivated Mr Robertson took early retirement and a triumphantly engorged Mr Russell went on, very recently, similarly to scream and yell at Kirk Ramsay, Chair of Stow College for having taken audio rather than written notes during a meeting Mr Russell addressed. Russell again demanded resignation; and, lacking the authority to remove Ramsay, wrote to every single Chair and./or CEO of every single college in Scotland to pressure them to ensure it happened.
Mr Ramsay was left with the awareness that if he did not resign – the Minister has no power to remove him – Stow College could suffer. He too went.
Yesterday Mr Russell had to go before the Scottish parliament and apologise for his misleading of members in figures he had given to show that the budget allocated to the colleges sector was not declining but increasing.
Claiming that this had been a genuine mistake, demonstrated by different figures he had also given on another occasion, this excuse was smartly torpedoed by Labour’s Neil Bibby and others. They asked why, if Mr Russell was so sure of the correct facts, he was endlessly nodding agreemen as his boss, First Minister Alex Salmond, gave parliament the wrong figures yet again at First Minister’s Questions last week.
In that session, Mr Salmond contemptuously dismissed Labour Leader, Johann Lamont’s assertion that the funding to colleges was in decline – a position supported by Audit Scotland’s independent calculation that this funding is to be cut by 24% over the next three years.
In support of his assertion Mr Salmond repeatedly gave erroneous figures and insisted that they were correct.
He had to make an ignominious return to the chamber before close of play that day, to apologise, curtly, for having misled members with inaccurate figures. This did little for his now serially evidenced reputation for making it up as he goes along.
Mr Salmond’s erroneous figures are said to have been provided to him by officials from the education department presided over, more or less, by Mr Russell.
The latest Russell war kite
It is beyond belief that a minister, so clearly under the stress of a job that is more than he can manage, should turn from enraged scalpings of senior figures like Messrs Robertson and Ramsay, on the fringes of government to assaulting colleagues within in.
His call on the Ombudsman puts a former and a present senior colleague right in the firing line: former Transport Minister, Stewart Stevenson and the current incumbent, Keith Brown.
These two men individually have poor records in office, although Mr Brown’s was initially promising by comparison with the utter ineptitude of his predecessor.
Mr Stevenson oversaw a transparently machiavellian delay of the award of the Gourock 0Dunoon contract until after the Scottish Election of 2011 which saw the SNP win an unprecedented majority in an electoral system specifically – and shamefully – designed principally to prevent them from doing so.
Mr Brown, already Stevenson’s successor after an episode where more snow fell than the helpless Stevenson knew what to do with, then presided over the award of the contract to a government owned company constituted for the purpose. Both Mr Brown and Mr Russell are, with their ministerial colleagues, shareholders of Argyll Ferries for the time being.
In Mr Stevenson’s favour, however, is that there was no whisper of his being a bullying minister – that would have been outside his benign character. Mr Russell’s track record is at least partly in the public domain; and Mr Brown is known to have recreated Transport Scotland as the most politicised department of government. Fear is king.
First a laugh then a political disaster
The Russell-requested intervention into the bathtubs of the Ombudsman ought to produce a series of unforgettable cartoons:
- with beturbaned Russell and Brown reclining in separate bathtubs on a collision course in front of Dunoon pier
- both without steering
- Russell hollering in the steam
- Brown ordering minions to swim between him and the oncoming Russell tub to protect himself
- the Ombudsman scuttling around on a JetSki between them, confiscating their soap and bubbles to make sure each has an equal means of inadequate propulsion
- and then the bang –
- but there’s no Clyde Coastguard over the water at Greenock…
- Who will locate the bobbing turbans in the murk of the dual sinking?
- Who will even try?
For us amused spectators, this could be fun to watch playing out.
But in the interests of his party, who will rein in Russell, who seems content to inflict potential collateral damage on his own already troubled government, in an overt public assault on fellow ministers he imagines somehow may help to shore up the wallowing barque of his own reputation?