John Swinney clung onto his job on Thursday but was warned his credibility had been irreversibly wounded after he presided over “the biggest exams failure in the history of devolution”.
The Education Secretary survived a no confidence motion - only the fourth in Holyrood history - after he agreed to scrap a system that last week saw 75,000 teenagers have crucial National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher grades arbitrarily downgraded.
The reversal was enough to win the backing of the Scottish Greens, whose votes along with SNP MSPs saw the no confidence motion defeated by a margin of 67 votes to 58.
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative Holyrood leader, said that the principle of parliamentary responsibility had been “forever damaged” by the “last minute pact” between the SNP and the parliament's other pro-independence party.
While both Mr Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon have apologised to students affected by the system, they spent days defending it and only changed their stance once it became apparent the Deputy First Minister was facing a no confidence vote. Sources within the Greens have confirmed that Mr Swinney agreed to everything they asked for in exchange for support.
“For parliamentary responsibility to work, the sanction must fit the scale of the failure and this was the biggest exams failure in the history of devolution,” Ms Davidson said.
“As high a regard as people across this chamber may hold John Swinney, the timeline of a threat of no confidence and the total u-turn that transpired, opens the education secretary to accusations he cared more about his own job than our children’s futures.
“The scale of this failure is to such a degree that it prompts the question – if this isn’t a resignation matter, then what is?”
I’ve had support for John Swinney coming from teachers, parents and pupils over the past couple of days. He listened and, he acted. Scotland faced the same issues as other UK nations, and used similar methodology. He is a genuine, honest and caring man who I am proud to know. https://t.co/50qwTIWW7Z— Gillian Martin (@GillianMSP) August 12, 2020
Both Labour and Liberal Democrat MSPs also voted to remove Mr Swinney, who by parliamentary convention would have been expected to resign had he lost the vote.
Opposition politicians raised what they described as a litany of failures during his tenure in education, including ditching what had been hailed as a flagship schools reform bill before it even reached the Holyrood chamber, and another major u-turn earlier this summer over school reopenings.
Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour leader, said the backlash and subsequent reversal over this year's results was "just the latest catastrophe in Mr Swinney's tenure in education".
However, Ms Sturgeon defended her deputy, accusing opponents of political opportunism. She described him as "one of the most decent and dedicated people in Scottish politics" and “probably the most honourable individual I have ever known in my life."
She added: "The last few days have been more difficult than they should ever have been for many young people in Scotland. I know that, and I am sorry, and so is John Swinney.
"I readily acknowledge that we focused too much on the system and not enough on individuals. A desire to avoid something that would look like grade inflation meant students lost out on grades that their teachers believed they deserved.
"The statistical model used meant many more students were downgraded in poorer areas than in other parts of Scotland.
"That was wrong, which is why the Deputy First Minister set out a solution on Tuesday and restored the grades of young people across the country."
Ross Greer, the Scottish Green education spokesman said the Scottish Government had accepted the solutions put forward by his party.
He added: "What has come about in England [on Thursday] is demonstrably worse, measurably and quantifiably worse, than what has happened in Scotland."