NOTHING breeds loyalty quite like success. Triumph tramples dissent into the dirt and leaves it for dead. And nowhere do we see this cynical devotion more nakedly than in politics.
Almost two decades ago, many Labour politicians stifled concerns that Tony Blair was taking their party too far right because they recognised in him the potential to win elections. More recently, Tories who were ready to elect David Davis as their leader turned to David Cameron after a party conference speech and a string of media appearances that made him look the best bet for victory, despite his lack of a distinctively Conservative agenda.
And so to the First Minister. Alex Salmond has enjoyed the loyalty of his party in recent years to a degree that other leaders can only observe with a healthy mix of admiration and seething, gut-churning, life-shortening jealousy.
Salmond’s second spell as leader of the SNP – particularly since the party’s fortunes started to soar in 2006 – has seen him elevated to heroic status by members and parliamentarians alike. Dissenting voices have silenced themselves. In fact, some of those who were once his fiercest critics (even if only privately) have been among his most public cheerleaders. Well, that honeymoon’s over, now.
The ongoing row over whether an independent Scotland would automatically become a member of the EU has seen to that. Loyalty is being tested. Salmond is being blamed. A number of SNP parliamentarians have told me in the past week that they were assured issues over EU membership had been addressed “years ago”. These politicians insist they did not assume, but sought comfort from Salmond and others around him.
Let’s just hop back a few weeks to when this story broke. You’ll recall that during a BBC interview, Salmond told Andrew Neil that the Scottish Government has sought and received legal advice on Scotland’s place in the EU. Within days, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was standing in the Holyrood chamber to admit that no such advice existed.
Crucially, among those I’ve spoken with from within the SNP ranks are a number who are adamant that they asked people close to the First Minister the same specific question over whether legal advice had been received. Bluntly, they feel misled by the boss.
We’re not talking cabals and plots here. There is no rebellion in the offing. But serious SNP politicians are asking whether, if they were led to believe that everything was hunky dory with continuing EU membership, they might be labouring under sundry other misapprehensions. “If even we are not getting it straight on this”, they say, “on what else aren’t we?”
What’s striking about those raising concerns from within the party is that they place the blame for the EU membership row – and the fact it allows relentless attacks on government honesty – at Salmond’s feet. It always was, they say, his style to wing it, and now they’re paying a price. The price in recent weeks has been a story which threatens to fatally hole the entire good ship Yes Scotland. And the latest chapter in this story represents a low for the SNP’s spin machine.
An astonishing campaign of attack which followed The Scotsman’s exclusive revelation that EU president José Manuel Barroso had written a letter to the House of Lords’ economic affairs committee, in which he asserted a newly independent Scotland would have to apply to join the union, backfired badly. The government rubbished the story which turned out to be completely true.
Cue Nicola Sturgeon, again, on clean-up duties in the Holyrood chamber, this time making a statement to the effect that the government was seeking urgent talks with Barroso. Sturgeon really doesn’t want to be making many more of these humiliating appearances before MSPs, during which she tries to put right freshly exposed wrongs (or even just newly raised doubts).
The Deputy First Minister has spent some time and effort in creating a distinctive identity for herself. She’s a different, less combative, kind of politician to Salmond. For this reason, the SNP has tasked her with winning over the temptable who don’t buy the First Minister’s brand.
Sturgeon risks throwing away goodwill and credibility if she’s spending much of her time “clarifying” things which Salmond has blithely asserted as fact.
There’s frustration, too, within the wider Yes Scotland campaign, which is still struggling to carve a distinctive identity for itself. Yes Scotland would like very much, in as non-political a way as possible, to tell a story of optimism and opportunity. How can they begin to do that when they are drowned out by the constant clang of the EU row? Or by rows yet to come, or sure to re-emerge, over Nato, sterling and benefits.
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont was on sharp form during First Minister’s Question Time on Thursday. She relentlessly attacked Salmond’s credibility then brought Nicola Sturgeon and Finance Secretary John Swinney into the equation, widening her accusations of dishonesty to include Salmond’s most effective Cabinet colleagues.
Salmond was unusually uncertain during the weekly knockabout, which he usually breezes. He looked like a man growing weary of taking punches.
The sky isn’t about to fall on Salmond, but things are not well in the SNP. The First Minister’s name is being taken in vain by parliamentarians who last month would have offered him a kidney had such a necessity arisen. An SNP group that’s been a model of bright-eyed enthusiasm and discipline seems less sure of itself.
And, most worrying for the First Minister, some of those whose loyalty is down to his electoral box office, are starting to remember the uncomfortable reasons they didn’t back him back when he wasn’t a winner. «