SNP prepare for tough by-election in Thomson’s seat

Michelle Thomson, right, on the campaign trail prior to the May election. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor

Michelle Thomson, right, on the campaign trail prior to the May election. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor

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THE SNP has already started preparing for a by-election in Michelle Thomson’s seat as the controversy over her property deals intensifies, Scotland on Sunday has learned.

An emergency meeting was held in Thomson’s Edinburgh West constituency last week as senior figures in the local SNP branch discussed the damage done to the party by the scandal.

“I will be astonished if she doesn’t resign very soon. The SNP are already preparing for a by-election in Edinburgh West and it is going to be a very hard seat to hold,” one SNP insider told Scotland on Sunday.

“Councillors and people in the Scottish Parliament are completely paranoid. Michelle Thomson is dragging the party into an unenviable position because irrespective of the final outcome, the property scandal will never go away. It is already a bad news story and it is probably going to get a lot worse..”

There are also suggestions that the controversy is causing a split in the party leadership, with Sturgeon wanting to hang Thomson out to dry, and her predecessor Alex Salmond keen for her to remain as an MP and not bow to media pressure.

SNP sources say the party regards what happens next to Thomson as a real test of how much power Sturgeon can wield over her newly elected Westminster group and the strong-willed former first minister.

One SNP insider said: “Salmond likes businesspeople. He likes people who make money. But Nicola is in charge and definitely wants people to be whiter than white. She wants the party to be above reproach.”

Thomson resigned the SNP whip at Westminster last week, but the scandal has shown no sign of abating as more questions have been raised about her involvement in property deals arranged through her solicitor, Christopher Hales, who has been struck off.

The action was taken against Hales after a Scottish solicitors’ disciplinary tribunal examined a series of property deals, which it described as possible mortgage fraud.

Hale was acting for Thomson’s firm M&F Property Solutions, which also has her husband Peter as a partner. The deals involved the purchase of property at knockdown prices from families in financial straits who were in a rush to sell. Thomson has maintained that she has always acted within the law.

More controversy has arisen over the Law Society of Scotland’s handling of the case, with opposition politicians questioning why it took a year for the solicitors’ governing body to alert prosecutors to the potential mortgage fraud.

Yesterday Scottish Labour called for an independent inquiry into the way the Law Society handled the deals linked to Thomson.

The Law Society’s guarantee fund subcommittee decides if Scottish Solicitor Discipline Tribunal findings should be formally reported to the authorities. While the Law Society twice notified the Crown Office “informally” of the case – once in December 2014 and again in April 2015 – there was a delay of over a year between the tribunal which saw Hales found guilty of misconduct and the Crown receiving the Law Society’s formal report on the case, in July 2015.

At a fraught press conference last week the Law Society chief executive, Laura Jack, was forced to defend the role played by the secretary of the guarantee fund sub-committee, Sheila Kirkwood, a founding member of Lawyers for Yes.

Jack said she had been assured by Kirkwood that she had been unaware of Thomson’s involvement in the property deals until reports surfaced in the press. 

Labour’s public services spokewoman, Jackie Baillie, said: “There are serious questions to be asked about the way the Law Society has handled this whole affair and about the conduct of key members of their staff.

“Farce is not too strong a description of what’s gone on. For the Law Society to claim staff may not have known who Michelle Thomson was despite Sheila Kirkwood, secretary of the sub-committee which received the final report about Mr Hales’ activities, being a leading member of the pro-independence group ‘Lawyers for Yes’ is difficult to swallow.”

Baillie added: “At the heart of this story are vulnerable families losing out for the fin­ancial gain of others.”

Last night Jack said: “We have already initiated a thorough review of our processes to see what lessons can be learned. We will also be meeting with the Crown Office to agree on how information can be more easily and effectively shared in the future. We would work with any other reviews to underscore the full range of actions we took, not just in successfully ensuring Christopher Hales was struck off as a solicitor but also to alert other authorities in the public interest.”

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