Andrew Whitaker: Teflon SNP may yet come a cropper

Natalie McGarry had had to withdraw from the SNP whip due to an ongoing investigation. Picture: John Devlin
Natalie McGarry had had to withdraw from the SNP whip due to an ongoing investigation. Picture: John Devlin
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THOMSON and McGarry rows seem not to have harmed support, but surely their luck can’t last, asks Andrew Whitaker

TO lose one MP due to controversies linked to police investigations is unfortunate, but to be two MPs down to such happenings, in just over two months, is arguably careless, some might say.

Suspended SNP member Michelle Thomson. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Suspended SNP member Michelle Thomson. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Yet that is what has happened to the SNP, with two of its recently elected MPs, Natalie McGarry and Michelle Thomson, both resigning the party whip after being caught up in respective controversies about missing campaign cash and property deals.

What the party suggests is a temporary reduction in its ranks from the stunning tally of 56 seats it won in May’s landslide win to 54 clearly does very little to dent the absolute dominance of the Nationalists in Scotland.

In fact one commentator joked last week that whipless MPs elected on an SNP ticket in May are now the second biggest Scottish party at Westminster, with Labour, the Lib Dems and Tories reduced to one apiece following the Nationalist tsunami on 7 May.

Such a remark perhaps speaks volumes about the Teflon-like quality of the SNP, which appears to grow in popularity each time a fresh opinion poll comes out.

It’s been said time after time that the SNP is sweeping all before it, and – with the main opposition Scottish Labour still in a weak state, despite an impressive enough start from new leader Kezia Dugdale – this shows no signs of changing any time soon.

The commentary about why the SNP is so dominant goes on and on, whether it’s claims about the potency of nationalism, the party’s self-styled competence in government or the state of its opponents.

Again it seems almost inevitable that the SNP will become the first party under devolution to win a third term in power at next May’s Holyrood elections as well as retaining its overall majority in a parliamentary system designed specifically to prevent such outcomes.

But there are puzzling questions about how controversies that would and indeed have damaged other governments, even temporarily, just don’t impact at all on the SNP.

John Major’s government from 1992 onwards lost by-election after by-election and was regularly on the receiving end of drubbings in local council elections after it was engulfed in a series of sleaze scandals such as “cash for questions”, when several Tory backbenchers were accused of accepting money in exchange for raising issues in parliament.

There was also former Tory cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken’s decision to sue for libel over a series of allegations made against him by the Guardian and World in Action in the mid-1990s, an enterprise that would later see him jailed for perjury.

As for Labour, even when it was still fairly popular, the party faced difficulties over donations and claims about cronyism that caused it genuine grief.

The Bernie Ecclestone affair broke six months after New Labour came to power in May 1997. Just months before the May victory Ecclestone, the Formula One chief, had donated £1 million to Labour – a donation only made public in early November after the government had announced F1 would be exempt from a ban on tobacco advertising, which was a key plank of Labour’s election manifesto.

The episode was an early blow for New Labour, which had been elected partly on a platform of opposition to Tory sleaze, and did real damage to Blair’s reputation despite him continuing to dominate UK politics for another decade.

The party donations row involving Labour’s chief fundraiser Lord Levy was another such example, albeit erupting at the fag end of Blair’s time as prime minister.

Lord Levy, a close ally of Blair, had been arrested in connection with claims that honours had been given in exchange for party donations.

Although the police would eventually drop the investigation, the episode would cast a shadow over Blair’s final period in office and gave an impression that the three-time election winner had lost his way.

It’s often forgotten that the SNP will next May have been in power for nine years. Certainly by that length of time in office Tory and Labour governments had all had their share of scandals that cost them electoral support, ministerial scalps aplenty and mid-term unpopularity.

Yet the SNP shows no real signs of being hit in the same way in the short or longer term, despite the real difficulties facing McGarry and Thomson.

Of course, there are even more extreme examples of a party being engulfed in what is nothing other than a scandal, such as the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan in the early 1960s.

After more than a decade in power and after a third election win in a row, the government of the day was ripped apart by the Profumo scandal, when the Minister of War, John Profumo, was forced to resign after being caught lying to the Commons about his affair with model Christine Keeler.

The Profumo scandal had it all in terms of political damage to a party as it emerged that Keeler had also a relationship with Eugene Ivanov, a Russian naval attaché to the Soviet embassy in London – something that fuelled fears of security being compromised at the height of the Cold War.

So cataclysmic was the episode that it arguably contributed to the fall of the Conservative government several years later.

Of course the SNP’s issues with Thomson and McGarry are what Macmillan may might have called “little local difficulties” in comparison.

Even if more damaging revelations were to come out, it’s unlikely films will be made of the controversies in a few years’ time, as happened with the Profumo episode.

But in all seriousness it does appear as though the normal laws of politics over scandals and controversies do not apply to the SNP, at least for now.

Polls suggest that controversies over the likes of McGarry and Thomson are not eating into SNP support and even in the unlikely event of either MP being forced to resign, it’s not a given the Nationalists would lose the by-election.

Perhaps it’s just one of the great puzzles of modern politics that the SNP will emerge relatively unscathed from any political row or controversy, in the same way that its highly questionable record in government over college funding and the NHS does not show any signs of harming its position electorally.