The SNP has lost control of Highland Council after the Lib Dems walked away from their coalition partnership.
The Lib Dems are now in discussion with the Independent party at the local authority, claiming they had found it increasingly difficult to work with the Nationalists.
“The SNP will now also have to consider its options”Maxine Smith, SNP group leader
The move has shocked the SNP, who recently installed a new group leader Maxine Smith, after MP Drew Hendry stood down following his success in the general election.
It had been anticipated Miss Smith would have been elected as the new leader of the council, until the Lib Dems announced the break-up of the coalition. The party is in talks with the Independent group and, if a new coalition is formed, they would have a combined tally of 46 of the authority’s 80 seats.
Lib Dem group leader and current acting leader of the council, David Alston, said: “Discussions are ongoing regarding the formation of a new administration. I anticipate this will be confirmed on 25 June at the next Highland Council meeting.”
He added: “We have found it increasingly difficult to work with the SNP in the Highland Council as effective partners. We retain our respect for many individual members of the SNP group but have deep concerns about the ways in which they are increasingly muzzled by their own party.
“This has been a process of growing concern. We do not believe that the SNP leadership of the council took forward and campaigned on the agreed positions of the Highland Council, among which were an agreement to oppose the routine arming of the police and an agreement to call for NHS Highland to receive its fair share of Scottish health funding.
“We believe they failed to campaign on these issues because they were not prepared to criticise their own party. This was both a failure in leadership of the council and a failure to represent the Highlands.”
During the coalition with the SNP, Mr Alston said they had repeatedly made clear deep concerns about increasing central control of decision-making within Scotland, adding: “We also fear, having seen how the SNP have centralised police and fire and rescue services and taken control over much of further education, that schools will be the SNP’s next target.
“We see no signs of real commitment to restoring decision-making powers to local government.”
Councillor Maxine Smith said: “I’m extremely saddened and concerned to hear this. I can’t believe one of our partners would take the decision to try and destabilise the council at a time when it’s moving forward so well. The SNP will now also have to consider its options in the light of this worrying news.”
A new leadership would leave the SNP in opposition with 21 councillors.