Euan McColm: SNP is now a black comedy amid dread of what may come next
In the black comedy that is the Scottish National Party, few scenes have been more humiliating than the one involving Ian Blackford, Stephen Flynn and two rictus grins.
Since the SNP is basically a civil war re-enactment society, these days, it was hardly surprising when Flynn, the party’s leader at Westminster, and his predecessor, Blackford, turned on each other in an entertainingly unseemly way.
At the heart of their spat was the not insignificant matter of the lack of auditors for the SNP Westminster group’s accounts. Blackford accused his successor of giving him false assurances about the situation, telling the BBC that Flynn had told him new auditors were in place. No, said Flynn, I didnae.
Two of the SNP’s most senior politicians publicly branding each other liars is, you might think, perfectly in keeping with the party’s look for this season - catastrophe chic - but someone, somewhere, decided it wouldn’t do. And so an all-pals-together photograph was taken and duly shared by Flynn on social media.
I suppose the thinking was that we would see Blackford and Flynn sitting together at a table by the Thames - a Guinness and an Aperol spritz in front of them - and think, oh, everything in the garden is rosy.
Instead, it just looked pitiful. Flynn’s accompany message - “Don’t dwell on the past, focus on the future” - dripped with pathos, like a post on Facebook from a pal explaining that, actually, Donna leaving was the best thing that ever happened to him.
All of this may be a laughing matter for those of us with no party allegiance but it is deadly serious for the SNP. If the Westminster group does not file audited accounts by the end of May, it stands to lose around £1.2million in short money - the public funds provided to opposition parties to allow them to run their affairs in the House of Commons.
The resignation - last October - of auditors Johnston Carmichael also has grave implications for the SNP at large. If a replacement company is not found and accounts filed by July, the Electoral Commission will bring in its own team and the party could be fined.
The Flynn-Blackford photo-shoot was not the only humiliation for the SNP in recent says. There was also a cocked-up attempt by former treasurer, Colin Beattie MSP, to pour oil on troubled waters.
Beattie - you will recall - was arrested by police the week before last. Having previously lifted former chief executive, Peter Murrell - Mr Nicola Sturgeon - officers investigating allegations about the SNP’s finances sought further information.
Beattie - who, like Murrell, was released without charge pending further investigation - pitched up at Holyrood on Tuesday to address a curious press pack.
During a brief question and answer session, he said he had not been aware the party had spent a hundred grand on a luxury motorhome, which had - until it was seized by cops two weeks ago - been sitting for two years on the driveway outside the home of Peter Murrell’s mother in Fife.
A few hours later, a clarification was issued. What Beattie meant to say was yes, he had been aware of it.
The SNP seems cursed. Every time someone tries to calm the crisis engulfing the party, they make it worse.
Which brings me to Nicola Sturgeon.
Sturgeon had stayed away from Holyrood for the first week after Easter recess. This, went the story, was so that her presence didn’t overshadow the early days of the leadership of her successor, Humza Yousaf. And, of course, you’re free to believe that.
Sturgeon returned to the Scottish Parliament, a couple of hours after Beattie, and told journalists recent events had been “traumatic”, the stuff of her “worst nightmare”. But beyond that, she was not going to comment on any aspect of the ongoing police investigation. There were, she added, many questions that she wanted to be able to answer and she hope, in time, she would but, for now, it would simply be inappropriate.
Cynics - damn them - may have felt Sturgeon’s intervention was timed to overshadow Beattie’s problematic appearance in front of the cameras.
It is all almost enough to make one feel sorry for Humza Yousaf. The current First Minister may have a track record of incompetence, he may - having been out of his depth as with Justice and Health Secretary - be floundering to stay afloat in the top job but he could do without others making a bad situation worse.
What Yousaf needs right now is a period of silence from colleagues. He needs the SNP to stop making headlines. He needs space to breathe.
I think, perhaps, this may explain his approach to First Minister’s Question Time on Thursday. Many of his answers were of the “I agree” and “You make a good point” variety. This entirely sensible approach disarmed opposition politicians, taking much of the heat out of a parliamentary session that was often, when Sturgeon ruled the roost, a brutal affair.
Whether Yousaf can maintain any degree of calm is another matter, entirely. The crisis engulfing the SNP stands to get worse before it gets better. Senior figures expect that Nicola Sturgeon - along with Murrell and Beattie, a signatory to the party’s books - will be questioned by police. Chums in the SNP tell me the sense of dread in the party, as they wait to see whether this happens, is quite unbearable. And I can well believe them.
As the SNP sinks deeper into a swamp of scandal, it’ll take a damned sight more than silly staged photos to restore its reputation.
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