Euan McColm: The perfect deputy leader wanted

STEWART Hosie’s resignation in wake of reports of an affair leaves a tricky vacancy to fill, writes Euan McColm

STEWART Hosie’s resignation in wake of reports of an affair leaves a tricky vacancy to fill, writes Euan McColm

It didn’t take any great skill to read the subtext of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s reply to MP Stewart Hosie’s letter informing her that he planned to step down as deputy leader of the SNP.

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On Sunday, after days of news coverage about his marriage breakdown amid reports of an affair with actress and journalist Serena Cowdy, Mr Hosie wrote to the FM, apologising for “any hurt and upset” caused to friends, family and colleagues by his recent actions. He explained that the controversy had impacted on his health and informed Ms Sturgeon that he would not be seeking re-election to his post at the SNP’s annual conference in autumn.

The First Minister’s reply didn’t exude warmth. It consisted of little more than a list of the duties Mr Hosie had performed since his election as deputy leader in 2014 and – despite his citing of it as the major reason for his decision – made no mention of his health concerns. Ms Sturgeon’s letter had the tone of a diplomatic job reference written by a deeply unimpressed line manager.

And so Mr Hosie, who was supposed to be spearheading a new drive this summer to build support for independence will fade into the background.

Doubtless, the First Minister could have done without the irritation of the Hosie affair. But it’s over now. Mr Hosie, having made a fool of himself and, in the process, betrayed his wife – Scottish health minister Shona Robison, to whom Ms Sturgeon is close – is off the pals list.

Although Ms Sturgeon cannot dictate who replaces Mr Hosie – every member of her party will have an equal say in that – she will surely have strong feeling about the outcome.

In 2014, Keith Brown MSP was considered the early favourite to become deputy leader of the party. Mr Brown, a solid enough sort, seemed to have the wind behind him from the start of the contest.

Had Mr Brown won, Ms Sturgeon would have had little choice but to appoint him as her deputy First Minister but the entry into the contest of the First Minister’s friend, Angela Constance MSP, was enough to split the vote and allow Mr Hosie to prevail. You will find some in the SNP – and not necessarily the usual conspiracy theorists – who believe Ms Constance’s candidacy was designed to create just such a result.

Whatever the shenanigans that preceded the vote, the happy outcome allowed Ms Sturgeon to make John Swinney – by some considerable margin the most effective member of her cabinet – deputy FM.

Furthermore, in Mr Hosie she had a deputy leader she believed to be of the safe-pair-of-hands variety.

There has been much speculation already about who might apply for the new vacancy. MPs Mhairi Black and Hannah Bardell, and Scottish Government minister Humza Yousaf have all been mentioned as potential successors to Mr Hosie. But none of these suggestions make much sense to me.

It would certainly make sense for the next deputy leader of the party to be an MP. The SNP’s Westminster group – down to 54 from 56 after the suspension of two MPs currently involved in investigations by the police – needs strict discipline and the election of another Westminster member as deputy leader may help ensure that requirement is met (although, it must be said, Mr Hosie’s presence didn’t go far in preventing scandal from emerging shortly after last year’s general election).

The obvious candidate among the ranks of SNP MPs would be the party’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson. Mr Robertson has made good use of his regular appearances at Prime Minister’s Question Time, showing a sharp focus on key issues and a willingness to tackle matters unrelated to the constitution.

Mr Robertson, close to Ms Sturgeon and deputy First Minister John Swinney, is a talented politician who grasps more than most – certainly more than the perma-sneering Mr Hosie – that the Nationalists will not make the progress they need to achieve their ultimate aim of Scottish independence unless they reach out to those who remain unconvinced. Take the issue of Nato membership. For many years, opposition to the nuclear alliance was an article of faith for SNP members but Mr Robertson led a challenge to that position and won a change of policy because he and other senior figures reasoned that mainstream voters preferred a government that was strong on defence issues.

If not Mr Robertson, then who?

Well, there are certainly some smart young MSPs who, in time, might become credibly candidates for leadership. The newly-appointed finance secretary Derek Mackay and the aforementioned Mr Yousaf both have bright futures in the SNP. But they are still relatively inexperienced and a step into the leadership team might prove risky at this stage.

More importantly, the election of a deputy leader from the MSP group would throw up questions about John Swinney’s role. The party’s deputy leader, if an MSP, might quite reasonably expect to be made deputy First Minister, If he or she were not promoted and Mr Swinney remained in the role, it would make a mockery of the party’s hierarchy.

The obvious solution, then, is for Mr Swinney to go for the job. That he would win at a canter is not in any doubt. Mr Swinney’s candidacy would signal to other hopefuls that they might as well give up and spare themselves the humiliation of defeat.

Mr Swinney is Ms Sturgeon’s most highly valued and trusted colleague and his election as deputy party leader would merely formalise an arrangement that already exists in everything but name.

However, John Swinney’s recent appointment to the position of education secretary might mean he feels he has enough on his plate for the time being. If this is so then Nicola Sturgeon could do worse than encouraging the former Cabinet secretary Bruce Crawford to have a crack.

A key, if low-profile, figure in the SNP’s shift into the political centre ground, Mr Crawford understands the First Minster’s priorities, is close to John Swinney, and has no desire to hold higher office in government. In fact, the more I think about it, the more Bruce Crawford seems the perfect candidate.