Lesley Riddoch: SNP must let differences surface in deputy leader contest

Angus Robertson has resigned as depute leader.
Angus Robertson has resigned as depute leader.
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Theresa May’s fate is the talk of the political steamie as Eurosceptic Tory MPs openly talk of booting her out of Downing Street and installing their “dream team” of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Of course, the Brexiteers’ dream looks more like an old Etonian nightmare to everyone else. Indeed a newspaper reported this weekend, that senior Tories fear Boris’ anti-EU stance will alienate voters in Remain-supporting London during forthcoming local elections in May. Threatened by a resurgent Labour party backed by “ground troops” from campaign group Momentum, Tory councillors fear their party could face near-annihilation. Asked if they faced a bad election result, one senior Tory cited the Foreign Secretary’s ‘battered’ reputation, and said ‘Much worse, I mean really f******g bad. London is just a complete disaster.’

Well, well. The list of problems facing the Prime Minister is already long; the Irish internal border that won’t be an internal border, the Customs agreement that won’t be a Customs Union, transition arrangements to create stability that will create much tougher rules for new EU nationals, the leaked government’s analysis saying Brexit will leave the UK worse off under every scenario, the outraged Jacob Rees Mogg and now the danger of an outraged London electorate. Every time Theresa May thinks the perfect storm is almost overhead, another hurricane rolls in.

By comparison, the SNP’s succession issues look fairly trivial.

Angus Robertson surprised many this weekend by announcing he would stand down as depute leader of the party. The former MP - who lost his Moray seat at last year’s general election - said he wanted to focus “on new career opportunities”. Social media has been full of valedictory good wishes from SNP colleagues and deserved praise for Robertson’s powerful presence at the despatch box where he took over as Nicola Sturgeon’s number two in October 2016, succeeding Stewart Hosie.

In his resignation letter, Robertson said; “I am no longer able to fully discharge my mandate, which was to partner you as Westminster SNP Leader and as a parliamentarian representing a rural constituency.”

The very formulation of that sentence seems to point directly to Ian Blackford as the best possible replacement – he represents rural Ross, Skye and Lochaber, as Westminster group leader.

But does the SNP need a seamless deputy leadership election with no heated debate or real challenge to the established way of doing things? And did Angus Robertson really have a “rural mandate” or just a selection of useful personal characteristics as a successful candidate? Some would argue other characteristics matter more at leadership level – like credibility with and activity within the wider Yes movement. Like being a non-establishment candidate who wants to widen the power base within the SNP. Like being a left-winger with a track record of organisational competence and an urban east-coaster to balance the west-coast constituency of Sturgeon and the rural background of deputy First Minister John Swinney.

The candidate who embodies most of these qualities is Tommy Shephard – former General Secretary of Scottish Labour under John Smith and the owner of several Stand Comedy Clubs. He is said to be “thinking about” whether to stand again. I’d say he and other would-be candidates should go for it and turn the deputy’s election into a real political contest – even if that dents the SNP’s reputation as the only party where no dirty linen is washed in public. Of course, there are downsides to standing. Sheppard was said to be demoralised after the last deputy election contest when he was pipped at the post by Stewart Hosie. The loss of Angus Robertson and Alex Salmond at the last election also shows what happens to those with high profile in the SNP – their seats are targetted by opposition parties and their own political careers may suffer.

Some on the left hope Mhairi Black will stand – but her own barely concealed contempt for Westminster politics makes her an unlikely candidate.

MSPs may feel reluctant to stand, since a Holyrood deputy might overshadow the popular deputy First Minister John Swinney. With a woman in the very top job, there might be gender equality concerns if the SNP’s deputy leader was also female. But there already are two men in top jobs representing rural constituencies – Perthshire’s John Swinney and Skye’s Ian Blackford. Adding a woman as deputy leader simply restores perfect gender parity – two all.

Turnout may be the key. It was around 50 per cent for the election Stewart Hosie won but just 40 per cent for the subsequent contest where Angus Robertson emerged as victor. There’s been speculation that some of the newer “movement” SNP members weren’t sufficiently savvy about party structures to get organised and vote – but they will be this time. Some older SNP members still see Tommy Sheppard as a “Johnny come lately” figure after decades spent in the Labour Party. Others argue that makes him the perfect man to overhaul the SNP’s top-down party structure and maintain the support of Labour voters, tempted by the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn as PM.

Many SNP voters want a deputy who is keen to actually talk about independence, and if there is still nervousness at Holyrood about pushing the issue, an MP would have sufficient distance from the “day job” and yet be perfectly positioned for network TV studios when the subject inevitably jumps onto news agendas as Brexit draws nearer.

Radical young councillor Chris McEleny from Inverclyde and MEP Alyn Smith may throw their hats in the ring again, since this contest is also about the nature of the deputy’s job. Is it about internal party organisation, Yes movement activism, the overwhelming importance of Brexit or “steady as she goes” support for the SNP leader?

Since the vote is conducted by STV, it’s perfectly possible for a number of popular party figures to stand and widen debate; strong performers like Phillippa Whitford - surgical in her former day job and her cross questioning of Tory Ministers on the vital issue of health. Or Joanna Cherry – only narrowly pipped for the Westminster Group leader’s job by Ian Blackford.

One thing’s for sure – sufficient talent and political fault lines exist within the SNP to justify an open contest for the deputy’s job, as long as the party’s leadership has the confidence to let these genuine differences surface.