Taxpayers are facing a multi-million-pound bill to nationalise the last commercial shipyard on the Clyde after a government contract intended to save the business instead brought it to the brink of financial collapse.

The Scottish Government was accused of “reckless mismanagement” after Finance Secretary Derek Mackay confirmed he was set to take Ferguson Marine in Port Glasgow into public ownership after a £97 million ferry deal went disastrously awry.

He said the Government was “ready and willing” to intervene in the absence of a commercial saviour for the firm, where 350 jobs are at risk.

It follows the yard’s owners taking the first steps towards administration last Friday, leading to around 60 agency workers being told they were no longer required yesterday. 

The Scottish Tories said the SNP was to blame for a humiliating mess. 

Ferguson Marine has been at the centre of an increasingly bitter row between SNP ministers and billionaire Jim McColl, whose Clyde Blowers empire bought the yard in 2014.

Although the firm quickly landed a £97m order for two innovative dual-fuel CalMac ferries, the deal has been blighted by design changes, delays and a 100 per cent cost overrun. Mr McColl blames CalMac’s state-owned parent Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL), which insists Ferguson’s bid for the work knowing it would be technically demanding.

Insiders say ministers want a change of management at Ferguson’s and the dispute could well end in court. Mr McColl had urged the Government to absorb half the cost over-run in return for an equity stake, but ministers refused on the basis it could breach EU state aid rules.

Mr McColl’s frustration boiled over at the weekend when he launched a scathing attack on the Government in a newspaper interview. 

The Herald: Camley's Cartoon: Ferry contract fiascoCamley's Cartoon: Ferry contract fiasco

Despite sitting on Nicola Sturgeon’s Council of Economic Advisers, he accused her ministers of “abusing their power” and failing to understand basic economics.

He said: “We get soundbites from ministers, tweeting about finishing the ferries and saving the jobs in the yard. It’s all PR. There’s no economic sense behind what they’re doing.

“The way they are acting right now is economically damaging for the local area and for Scotland. Anybody with a Standard grade in economics would be able to work this out , it’s not rocket science…. The Government should not be abusing their power like this.”

Mr Mackay, who loaned the yard £15m without telling MSPs for nine months, then loaned it £30m more, said the Government had worked for two years to end the dispute.

He said: “Throughout that time our preference has been to identify viable commercial options to keep the yard going and to finish the vessels. No such solutions have come forward. The Scottish Government has now indicated to all relevant parties that we are ready and willing to take Ferguson Marine into public ownership and deliver the ferries to secure the continued employment of the workforce in the yard. 

“There remains a process to go through to secure the transfer of the yard to the Scottish Government, and we are hopeful that all parties recognise the importance of completing that transfer as quickly and as smoothly as possible.

“While we are open to engaging with any parties with a serious interest in investing in and securing a future for the shipyard, it is essential the Government acts now to secure the completion of the ferries and continuity of employment at Ferguson’s.”

Earlier, Mr Mackay told BBC Radio Scotland the Government would not “hand over a cheque” to complete the ferries because it would be “illegal” and breach EU state aid rules.

He said: “The £97m has already been spent on vessels that are not complete. 

“Once we conduct due diligence and if we’re in public ownership we’ll have sight as to what is required to complete those vessels. The alternative is for the Government to walk away, the company goes into administration, the jobs are lost, the vessels are not complete.”

The unfinished boats should have been delivered last year, boosting capacity on the Ardrossan-Arran route and Uig triangle, but have been delayed until 2020.
The Tories demanded Mr Mackay explain exactly what nationalisation would involve – and cost – especially after ministers sank £40m into Prestwick Airport after taking it over, and have now put it up for sale without knowing if they will get the money back. 

MSP Jamie Greene said: “This announcement is entirely the result of the SNP’s reckless mismanagement of the Ferguson Marine contract and a complete embarrassment to them.

“The way to jobs and the yard’s future is by ensuring that the current ferry contract concludes by resolving the dispute over cost over-runs.  

“Nationalising Ferguson Marine, even if it is possible to do so, simply raises more questions than answers and offers no certainty to the business at all.

“It’s pretty clear that Derek Mackay has no clue whatsoever what the cost to the taxpayer will be, over and above the tens of millions of pounds already spent on this bungled contract.

“The SNP’s track record on big infrastructure projects is shambolic and their failure to provide a coherent long-term ferry strategy has blighted our island communities for too long. 

“Given the SNP’s poor track record on running nationalised businesses, there is no guarantee that doing so will provide any long-term security to the business, deliver a finished product or provide any comfort to the workers and their families.”

A source said some yard staff were unhappy Ms Sturgeon chose to be on ITV’s Loose Women show yesterday amid the crisis at Ferguson’s.

Scottish LibDem Leader Willie Rennie said: “With the Government financially exposed with millions of pounds of public money involved in the maintenance of the Ferguson shipyard, it is only right that the Government answers some difficult questions about their role.  

“We must protect the jobs of the workers and get these ferries built for the routes that are desperately awaiting new vessels so we need to make the right decisions now. 

“Will the existing management at Ferguson’s remain in place if the yard is nationalised? Surely there must be questions about their role in the current problems.

“How is the Scottish Government going to ensure it does a better job managing this nationalisation? Its intervention at Bifab saw the promise made to hundreds of workers broken within weeks, while Prestwick has recorded loss after loss on the SNP’s watch.”

Stephen McCabe, the Labour leader of Inverclyde Council, said: “I would urge the Government and Clyde Blowers to make one last effort to reach an agreement that would secure the best possible outcome for the workforce and local community. 

“Failing that the Government should take the yard into public ownership on the basis of a clear long-term plan that provides security of employment for the current workforce and opportunities for future expansion.”

Chris McEleny, leader of the SNP opposition on Inverclyde, said: “It’s a really bad day. Around 60 agency workers have stopped work, and there are 300 other people at the yard who don’t have any certainty on whether they’ll have a job come Monday.

“I would urge the Scottish Government to sit down with Jim McColl and come to a deal with Clyde Blowers. It’s the best way to secure the future of the yard.” 

Clyde Blowers declined to comment as talks are ongoing.