ONE of Scotland's wealthiest men says he was a pawn in the Scottish Government's hunger to save Ferguson Marine to protect Scottish jobs.

Jim McColl, the tycoon entrepreneur who owned the embattled shipyard firm Ferguson Marine Engineering Ltd (FMEL) which was nationalised after it fell into administration two years ago has hit back for the first time over claims that it was solely his connections with the SNP and former First Minister Alex Salmond in particular that led to his yard winning the ferry contracts that led to Scotland's shipbuilding fiasco.

SNP ministers came under fire for wasting public money after an inquiry into the ferries fiasco found that Ferguson Marine submitted the most expensive bid for the work out of six competing yards and also the highest specification.

Mr McColl, one of Nicola Sturgeon's own economic advisers denied cronyism and said the SNP government favoured the yard and not him personally and wanted to make "political capital".

The collapse of Ferguson Marine which runs the last remaining shipyard on the lower Clyde, in August 2019, came amid soaring costs and delays to the construction of two lifeline island ferries and resulted in a Scottish Government takeover.

It came five years after tycoon Jim McColl first rescued the yard when it went bust.

Mr McColl, once a supporter of the Scottish Government's policy of independence for Scotland, but who now says he now has no political leanings said moved in in a move partly brokered by former first minister Alex Salmond, who kept the entrepreneur abreast of businesses that needed saving.

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But the delivery of new island ferries MV Glen Sannox and Hull 802, which were due online in the first half of 2018, is now over four years late, with costs doubling to over £200m.

Mr McColl blamed the rising costs on repeated design changes by the owners and procurers of Scotland’s ferry fleet, Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL) for the issues in building the vessels for ferry operator CalMac, which is also publicly-owned.

Renamed under nationalisation as Ferguson Marine (Port Glasgow) Holdings (FMPG), and supported by taxpayer cash, it made a £100 million loss in its first four months of Scottish Government control.

The Scottish Government has said it believes it was acting in the public interest in taking complete control of FMEL by December, as it saved the yard from closure, rescued more than 300 jobs, and ensured that the two vessels under construction will be completed.

Mr McColl who wants an independent judge-led inquiry into the fiasco admitted his connections had a bearing on the contracts being awarded to Ferguson Marine.

"We may have got the contract, but not because of my connections with the SNP, but because of my connections with the previous leader [Alex Salmond].

"He approached me every time there was a company in trouble in Scotland and most of them, I went back and said there was nothing we could do with that. When I looked at Ferguson, there is a very good market for Ferguson and a great opportunity and I agreed to do it.

"I would have been better off without that contract, that was pushed for the government's political ends not for me.

"Alex tried very hard on every business he brought me to look at. Any industrial business that was in trouble, which is quite right, it is his job to try and save it. "

"I did say, that we would have to have the right to bid for future ferries, because that would be a core part of what we would be able to do.

"I didn't ask for a preferential position or anything like that. I realised he [Alex Salmond] was very strong on abiding by European procurement rules. We had to abide by that, but I said look, I am confident we can be competitive, all I want is an undertaking that we will be allowed to bid."

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He said it was clearly understood that this would be in a competitive environment.

While the order for Sannox and Hull 802 was given while Nicola Sturgeon was First Minister, it was when Mr Salmond was SNP leader that Ferguson got an the order for a diesel-electric hybrid ferry which was delivered for just £12.3m in 2016 for use on its Clyde and Hebridean routes. That is 12.3% of the cost of each of the incomplete ferries currently languishing in the Port Glasgow yard awaiting completion.

MV Catriona was the first ship of its type to be built by Ferguson Marine, which won the contract in September 2014 shortly after the shipyard was rescued from closure.

The roll-on roll-off vessel is almost 150ft long and can take up to 150 passengers, 23 cars or two HGVs.

It used low-carbon hybrid system that combines traditional diesel power with electric battery power.

Mr McColl, who has said he is willing to make a return to the helm at Ferguson but says the Scottish Government-controlled ferries operation needs to end said it was delivered six weeks early and on budget.

"They [the Scottish Government] favoured the yard because it was Scottish jobs and they can make political capital out of it," he said.

"I was just a pawn in this. It is not favouring me."

He added: "The one thing the Scottish Government do really well is political propaganda. You have got to admire them for it.

"They have a slick machine, but that's wrong. They should be facing up to the real challenges and fixing them."

The Scottish Government said it believed it was acting in the public interest in taking complete control of Ferguson Marine by December, as it saved the yard from closure, rescued more than 300 jobs, and ensured that the two vessels under construction would be completed.

A Transport Scotland executive, highlighting 'presentational issues' in a confidential letter in 2015, stated that Ferguson's tender was "the highest quality bid received, but also the highest price".

The letter which is partially redacted also says: "As with any procurement, a legal challenge from one of the unsuccessful shipyards cannot be discounted.

HeraldScotland:

"CMAL [Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd, which handles government ferry contracts] have not identified any particular risks in this regard and, in any case, are confident that any challenge can be defended.

"That said, the relationship between Scottish ministers and Ferguson's owner is well known."

"We were undertaking this project with no profit to the yard and we did that because we thought it would be a great marketing tool and a great case study for us. We weren't taking it on with great margins. It was effectively to break even," added Mr McColl who says CMAL should be scrapped.

"That was why it was important that when variations came out, that we were paid for them."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We stand firm on our commitment to the vessels, the workforce and the yard. We continue to work with partners to minimise the impact of delays and ensure the vessels, which are critical to supporting the lifeline ferry network and the Calmac fleet, enter service as quickly as possible and deliver the service improvements which our island communities depend upon.”