NICOLA Sturgeon has vehemently denied the CalMac ferries fiasco sprang from a dodgy “jobs for the boys” decision to award the contract to a Scottish shipyard for political reasons.

The First Minister told Holyrood’s Public Audit Committee it was “absolutely categorically not” the case that the deal was “steered inappropriately” to Ferguson Marine on the Clyde.

The yard was owned at the time by tycoon Jim McColl, then an economic adviser to First Minister Alex Salmond and a prominent supporter of independence.

The state-owned ferry procurement body Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL) ordered two boats from the yard - the largest civilian shipyard on the Clyde - for a fixed price of £97m in October 2015. 

They were due to be delivered to the state-owned ferry operator CalMac by mid 2018. 

However they are still under construction and the cost has risen to nearer £300m.

The Glen Sannox, formerly Hull 801, and the as-yet-unnamed Hull 802 are now due to be delivered in 2023 and early 2024.

A series of disputes over designs and delays saw relations between CMAL and Ferguson’s break down, and the yard went broke and was nationalised in 2019.

In March this year, the public spending watchdog Audit Scotland said there had been a “multitude of failings” in the delivery of the two ferries.

Giving evidence on the saga today, Ms Sturgeon was asked by Tory MSP Sharown Dowey asking why she personally announced Ferguson’s as the preferred bidder on 31 August 2015 despite behind-the-scenes problems.

CMAL were worried about Ferguson's inability to provide an industry standard builders refund guarantee that would have protected taxpayers in case of problems and wanted to re-tender the contract.

However Transport Scotland said it must go ahead at the Government’s instruction.

Ms Dowey said there multiple “red flags”, yet Ms Sturgeon had publicly announced Ferguson’s as the preferred bidder, potentially making it harder to pull out of the contract at a later date.

Ms Dowey asked: “Was there an interest from the Scottish Government to award the contract to FMEL [Ferguson Marine Engineering Limited]? 

“Was it a kind of jobs for the boys… There's obviously been talk of the relationship between the Scottish Government and Jim McColl. 

“So was there an interest from the Scottish Government to award the contact?”

Ms Sturgeon replied: “You've used that a rather pejorative term that just for the avoidance of doubt, and for the record, I completely and utterly refute.

“Is it the case that ministers, politicians generally, often we’re challenged on these points by opposition politicians, that assuming it's all done by the book, you're quite happy to see contracts go to Scottish companies and therefore support Scottish jobs. 

“I'm pretty sure every politician around this table would say, Yeah, of course that is ideally what we want to see providing is all done appropriately. 

“If you are saying was there anything untoward in this procurement process in order to somehow inappropriately steer this contract towards FMEL? Absolutely, categorically not. 

“You don't just have to take my word for that. Kevin Hobbes, the now chief executive of CMAL… categorically denied that there had been any pressure put on CMAL by the Scottish Government around the award of this contract. 

“The contract was awarded purely on the assessment CMAL did of the tender, the bid that FMEL submitted. 

“So absolutely, categorically no is the answer to your question, in the way I think your question is intended.”

Ms Dowey said: There's so many red flags in advance of the announcement being made, and then the contract being issued, and they all seem to have been ignored. A

“I don't know whether you've not been briefed enough.”

She said former transport minister Derek Mackay, [who signed off the deal, had told the committee that “of course” he had concerns about the lack of a builders refund guarantee as it had been flagged up to him.

Then CMAL chair Erik Ostergaard had also said Ferguson’s, as a “newly established shipyard with no track record at all of building ferries of this size is an unsecured risk”. 

Ms Sturgeon denied the information she had about ongoing talks had presented to her in a "red flag" way, but in a sparser, more neutral form.