Until today, Derek Mackay seemed destined for the very top. The Scottish finance secretary’s name was the one most commonly mentioned when conversation turned to Nicola Sturgeon’s likely successor as leader of the SNP and, perhaps, First Minister. Some voiced doubts as to whether the 42-year-old was good enough, and he is cursed with an awkward vocal intonation, but in the absence of much competition, he seemed a reasonable bet. He was smart, agile, and a good parliamentary performer.
Now he joins the ranks of politicians wholly undone by scandal. His appalling misjudgement in sending messages to a 16-year-old boy, who he called “cute” – it’s fairly been described as grooming – led to his resignation just hours before he was due to deliver the Scottish Budget this afternoon. In truth, Nicola Sturgeon should have fired him – the nature of the offence surely merited that. Having been suspended from both the SNP and party’s parliamentary group, it remains hard to see how Mackay can continue as an MSP, though the party may try to bluff it out. One must feel for the boy at the centre of the story, and for Mackay’s family – he has a male partner, and two children of his own with his ex-wife – but he is undoubtedly the author of his own misfortune.
To address the politics, the timing is dreadful for a number of reasons. Mackay’s junior colleague Kate Forbes, the public finance minister, has stepped in to deliver today’s Budget, with little time for preparation and the air of scandal surrounding one of the most important events in the Holyrood calendar. Any possibility the Budget would recharge the government’s stuttering momentum – it has recently endured fierce criticism over the performance of public services – is lost.
Meanwhile, the resignation comes shortly before the trial of former SNP First Minister Alex Salmond on sexual assault charges in March. The party was preparing itself for months of awkward headlines. They’ve arrived rather earlier than anyone expected. The sense that the SNP government has been too long in office and is beginning to rot – think of the end of the Major years –is not one Sturgeon will want to take hold in the public imagination,
In every crisis, an opportunity, however. Forbes, who only turns 30 this year, finds herself in the spotlight. She is a rising star in the party, an accountant by training and a Cambridge graduate. She is moderate, friendly and interested in ideas. She will arguably replace Mackay not just at the despatch box, but as next in line to the throne. Were Sturgeon to appoint her as Mackay’s permanent replacement, the decision would be broadly welcomed.
The First Minister finds herself firefighting on too many fronts, with next year’s Scottish parliament election looming on the horizon. Support for independence has been at somewhere between 50 per cent and 52 per cent in three recent polls, suggesting the Nats are making progress towards their ultimate goal. But the months of difficulty that seem to lie ahead may yet have an impact not just on the popularity of her party, but on Scotland’s confidence in taking the final constitutional leap. We shall see.