Scotland’s finance secretary, Derek Mackay, has resigned and suspended as a member of the Scottish National party hours before he was due to deliver next year’s budget after it emerged he had been sending messages to a 16-year-old boy.
The Scottish Sun published hundreds of messages that Mackay, 42, had sent the teenager, including calling him “cute”, discussing the boy’s new haircut, and inviting him to dinner and to a parliamentary event as his guest.
In a statement, Mackay said he had tendered his resignation to Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, with immediate effect.
Mackay, a longstanding Scottish National party national convenor and one of the party’s most prominent figures, had widely been seen as a contender to eventually replace Sturgeon as SNP leader.
The public finance minister, Kate Forbes, will deliver the budget statement instead, Sturgeon said.
Mackay’s statement read: “I take full responsibility for my actions. I have behaved foolishly and I am truly sorry. I apologise unreservedly to the individual involved and his family.
“I spoke last night with the first minister and tendered my resignation with immediate effect. Serving in government has been a huge privilege and I am sorry to have let colleagues and supporters down.”
Sturgeon said Mackay’s membership of the SNP had also been suspended.
Mackay, who has two sons, had been due to deliver the Scottish government’s draft budget for 2020-21 at Holyrood on Thursday. It will instead be presented by Mackay’s deputy, Kate Forbes.
The Sun reported that Mackay, who disclosed he was gay after his marriage ended in 2013, befriended the teenager on Facebook and Instagram and sent him unsolicited messages.
The paper said the teenager’s mother was furious. “I worry about what would have happened if my son had sent him back a message he wanted to hear,” she said.
Sturgeon said: “Derek has taken full responsibility for his actions and apologises unreservedly for them to the individual involved and to those he has let down. He has submitted his resignation as a government minister, which I have accepted. Derek has made a significant contribution to government. However, he recognises that his behaviour has failed to meet the standards required.”
The resignation on the eve of the budget will be a blow to Sturgeon. The budget is the heart of the Scottish government’s policy agenda and Scotland has powers to set it income tax rates.
Mackay had been expected to set out detailed spending plans on the climate crisis, infrastructure and public services, and criticise the UK government’s decision to delay its budget until early March. Because the Treasury’s spending decisions influence about £20bn of spending by the Scottish government, the delay in getting precise figures restricted Mackay’s ability to plan his budget.
His successor will face a deepening row over a botched £97m contract to build two hybrid ferries at Ferguson Marine, a Clyde shipyard that was rescued from closure by a close ally of Alex Salmond shortly before the 2014 independence referendum. The contract, overseen by the finance department, is significantly delayed and over budget.
Opposition politicians said Mackay’s resignation was a huge blow for Sturgeon.
Jackson Carlaw, acting leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said Mackay also needed to consider standing down as an MSP, triggering a byelection. Mackay is the MSP for Renfrewshire North and West, holding it with a comfortable 7,373 majority over the Tories.
Carlaw said: “I’m shocked, and I think everybody will be. It’s not just a blow to the Scottish government but it’s a blow to the reputation of the Scottish parliament, and to politics in Scotland generally.
“I think it’s difficult to see, having read the material that is now in the public domain, that this is anything other than a colossal lapse of judgement by Derek Mackay and by any definition that you hear of grooming on social media, what I have read would appear to fulfil that definition.”
Tory finance spokesman Murdo Fraser said he had always enjoyed working with Mackay but he had “acted foolishly and is right to resign”. He tweeted: “This is, however, a huge blow for Nicola Sturgeon to lose such a key member of her Govt at such a crucial time – and one tipped as her successor.”
Scottish Green co-leader Patrick Harvie said: “Derek Mackay’s behaviour was utterly unacceptable and his resignation was clearly necessary. But we are now just hours from publication of the Scottish budget, in what were already unprecedented circumstances. It’s vital now that all parties put the public interest first.”
Mary Glasgow, the chief executive of the children’s charity Children 1st, said: “By resigning Derek Mackay has acknowledged that his behaviour was inappropriate.
“Children 1st has always been clear that children and young people are vulnerable in situations where there is a significant difference in age, power and status between them and another person.
“Society should recognise by now that it is never acceptable to exploit that vulnerability.”