Insight: Doubts over Jim Murphy’s devo commitment

Murphy didn't speak to the media after Johann Lamont's resignation. Picture: John Devlin
Murphy didn't speak to the media after Johann Lamont's resignation. Picture: John Devlin
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WHEN Labour MP Jim Murphy appeared on Dermot Murnaghan’s Sky News programme last Sunday morning, he appeared to put an end to speculation that he might hold ambitions to the lead the Scottish Labour Party, writes Euan McColm.

For months, the shadow international development secretary’s name had been linked with the position held – until Friday evening – by ­Johann Lamont, but, asked by Murnaghan if he was interested, Murphy said he was determined to play a role in the next Labour government at Westminster.

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Pressed on whether this meant he was ruling himself out of making a pitch for the job, Murphy was unequivocal in answering “yes”.

There was considerable disappointment among (sections of) the Scottish Labour Party membership at this news. For many, Murphy represented Labour’s best chance of orchestrating any kind of fightback against the SNP.

A week after that interview and those same Labour members disappointed by his declaration hope that Murphy might be persuaded to change his mind. The 47-year-old MP for East Renfrewshire remains, for some, the only choice to lead the party.

Murphy is a skilled politician who, having won what was once considered the safest Tory seat in Scotland in 1997, set about turning it into one of the safest Labour ones.

He had a very good independence referendum campaign, touring Scotland and delivering pro-Union speeches, while standing on top of two Irn-Bru crates, in towns across the country. His profile during the campaign was considerably higher than Lamont’s. At times, it seemed as if Murphy was already Labour’s most senior Scottish figure.

Those in Labour who believe Murphy remains the best candidate to succeed Lamont have another reason for placing their faith in him. He has a track record in dealing confidently with the SNP.

When Murphy was appointed Secretary of State for Scotland in 2008, he asked officials to arrange a meeting with First Minister Alex Salmond and requested that he and the SNP leader have five minutes in private before they were joined by their teams. The call came back that Salmond would be happy to meet but that it would not be possible to have that private session.

Murphy agreed to Salmond’s conditions and then began the meeting by asking for five minutes in private. His team, teed up for this moment, stood and left the meeting room, leaving Salmond’s officials with little option but to do likewise.

Labour and SNP sources alike say that what followed was a tense confrontation between Murphy and Salmond. Murphy, it is said, told Salmond he considered him a “f***ing bully” and warned that he would not be trodden over. Apparently Salmond spluttered that this wasn’t terribly collegiate to which Murphy responded that it was as well they understood each other.

But this cocky side to Murphy, attractive to many in Labour, has rubbed some colleagues up the wrong way. While some see him as the party’s potential saviour, others describe him as a divisive figure. Some doubt his commitment to devolution, considering him a Westminster politician to the tips of his toes.

Should Murphy decide to step forward, it would require a commitment from him to stand for Holyrood in 2016. This would have echoes of ­Salmond’s successful 2007 Scottish Parliament campaign, when he returned as an MSP after six years at Westminster.

A Murphy leadership would also require the replacement of the Scottish party’s current deputy, Anas Sarwar MP. Were Murphy to serve, initially, at Westminster, then he would require a deputy at Holyrood, able to deal with First Minister’s Questions, among other matters.

This weekend, a number of names are in the frame to succeed Lamont. Alongside Murphy, both Sarwar and Labour’s shadow education secretary, Kezia Dugdale, are tipped as possible replacements.

If a large part of Lamont’s problem was the inability to stamp her authority on the problem, then a Sarwar leadership would promise more of the same. Dugdale, bright though inexperienced, might find the challenges of leadership had come too soon. Perhaps, though, she might make a good deputy.

Wilder speculation suggests that former prime minister Gordon Brown might pitch for the job. That would certainly be a sensational story, but Brown remains a hugely divisive figure in the party and has previously ruled out a return to frontline politics.

Murphy, then, appears the obvious candidate. He’s a smart enough politician to realise that, without power, his business is pointless. Murphy, a supporter of David Miliband’s failed Labour leadership campaign, is not guaranteed a prominent role in a future Ed Miliband cabinet, should such a thing ever exist. He might, though, make a decent run at becoming First Minister.

There is a wider party problem that will only be solved by the election of a leader who inspires confidence. Sacked Scottish general secretary Ian Price would appear to have been made the fall guy for the loss to the Yes campaign of traditional Labour areas such as Glasgow and North Lanarkshire. This is unfair, but politics is often so.

This role must be filled quickly. It is hard to imagine a queue of high-calibre candidates lining up to serve under yet another inadequate leader.

The Scottish Labour Party – from political leadership to back room planning – is in crisis. It requires not only a new figurehead but the complete rebuilding of its strategy.

Murphy was yesterday lying low, refusing to take calls from the media. There was no spin from “friends” about his intentions. But he will be acutely aware that pressure on him to step up and, at least, try to get Scottish Labour back on track is growing.

Among those who know him, opinion remains divided. One friend yesterday insisted that Murphy had committed himself to Westminster and that was that.

Another, though, had a take that might raise the hopes of quite a few of his colleagues. “Jim loves the Labour Party,” he said. “He’ll do the right thing.” «