Scott Macnab: Civil war brewing within the SNP

Nicola Sturgeon sought to remind everyone that she is in charge of SNP decision-making on the major global issues last week when she directly intervened on the prospect of the UK joining air strikes in Syria.

Nicola Sturgeon said she would be ready to listen to David Camerons case for extending the bombing campaign. Picture: Getty

The First Minister took some by surprise when she stepped into the debate and made it clear that she would be ready to listen to David Cameron’s case for extending the RAF bombing campaign from the Iraq into Syria. It has been the party’s senior Westminster figures - particularly Angus Robertson and foreign affairs spokesman Alex Salmond - who had been taking a lead on the issue until now and striking a markedly more sceptical tone than Ms Sturgeon on the prospect of further RAF strikes. The former First Minister all but ruled out SNP support for more air strikes yesterday, unless David Cameron comes up with wider plan of action to defeat IS.

Does this betray the first signs of tension between the Edinburgh-based First Minister and the increasingly influential body of Nationalist MPs at Westminster? This is a unique dilemma which no SNP leader has faced since the onset of devolution. The party has always been either the official opposition at Holyrood or the government of Scotland. The handful of MPs, on the other hand, have been little more than a rump throughout this period with limited influence at UK level. The sweeping gains which the party made in the UK election this year - claiming all but three of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats - has changed all that.

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The SNP has now firmly replaced the Liberal Democrats as the third party in UK politics. It’s spokespeople now command prominent profiles on the UK stage. Mr Robertson’s contributions at the weekly joust with David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions are now even captured in live broadcasts - before the cameras cut back to TV studios as is the norm with minor back bench questions.

It could mark a significant test for the SNP leader’s authority to ensure she is calling the shots over this diverse and fledgling group. It would seem a lot harder for her to maintain the steely grip on the MPs - with big guns like Salmond, Robertson and deputy leader Stewart Hosie - than she does with the altogether more tame group of MSPs at Holyrood. It was certainly clear during the election campaign who was in charge, as Ms Sturgeon had a starring role in the televised debates as she became the public face of the SNP and made it clear she would be heading up any negotiations with UK leaders in the event of coalition talks being staged.

The nightmare scenario which Ms Sturgeon will be desperate to avoid is the infighting which engulfed Labour in the early years of devolution. Labour leaders in Scotland were firmly kept in their place as officially heading up the Holyrood group of MSPs, and nothing more. It was the Westminster heavyweights like Gordon Brown who carried the real clout within the party north of the border. The disdain many of the party’s MPs felt towards their Holyrood colleagues was often barely concealed. At least Labour’s new leader in Scotland, Kezia Dugdale, doesn’t have to worry about any threat from MP colleagues - the challenge to her authority may yet lie closer to home.

Ms Sturgeon won’t be undermined in the way Labour leaders in Scotland were over the past decade but her intervention this week may nonetheless show that she is keen to avoid any threat to her authority from an alternate SNP power base emerging in London. Civil servants at St Andrews House still have nightmares about how hard Mr Salmond was to control while in office. Ms Sturgeon must hope she won’t be facing similar sleepless nights in the years ahead.