The SNP is locked in a power struggle over influential positions chairing two parliamentary committees amid calls for Ian Blackford to “sack” one of his own MPs.
The Nationalist group leader now faces a ‘free for all’ between his parliamentarians in elections to the influential posts, which come with a £15,000 top-up to parliamentarians’ salaries.
Control of Westminster committees is allocated based on the number of MPs each party has in the Commons, with the SNP landslide in 2015 giving the nationalists the right to chair committees for the first time.
Following negotiation between the parties behind closed doors, the SNP will lead the same two committees that it held in the last parliament – Scottish Affairs and International Trade.
Chairmanship of committees allocated to the Conservatives and Labour is determined by an election of the whole House of Commons, which will take place next week.
After the 2015 and 2017 elections, the SNP’s Westminster group leader effectively appointed the chairs of its committees, with no other candidates putting themselves forward.
Amid an ongoing row between Mr Blackford and current chairman of the International Trade committee Angus MacNeil, party bosses at Westminster considered holding an election among SNP MPs to choose nominees, but the process will now be open for anyone in the group to stand.
Mr Blackford and Mr MacNeil have been at odds over the Western Isles MP’s public disagreement with his own party over its tactics to secure a second independence referendum. He has suggested the Scottish Government should organise a ‘wildcat’ independence referendum without legal authority under the Scotland Act, which is being withheld by Boris Johnson.
The Prime Minister wrote to Nicola Sturgeon this week, confirming he would not grant a Section 30 order to allow an independence referendum to take place.
Mr MacNeil also broke with his party over the calling of last month’s election, voting against holding a snap poll.
His public defiance is understood to have led to a heated row with Mr Blackford in front of other nationalist MPs at a group meeting before Christmas.
In what was seen as a bid to force Mr MacNeil from the role, the SNP is understood to have considered holding a vote among its MPs to decide who should fill the International Development Committee post. But SNP insiders feared Mr MacNeil, who has been an MP since 2005 and has a high profile in the Commons, would put his name forward and lobby Tory MPs to vote him in and embarrass the nationalist leadership. The party is also under pressure to allow an open process because most of its MPs now have at least four years’ experience at Westminster.
One SNP insider said: “Ian will never have as much political capital as he does now. He should just sack Angus and be done with it.”
Mr MacNeil said: “Committee chairmanships are a parliamentary position, not a party position. The party group can express a view, but ultimately it’s up to Parliament. Any MP can put themselves forward. I’ve already been asked by leading trade figures if I’ll be continuing, and the Tory and Labour members of the committee have told me they are ready to sign my nomination papers.”
Warning his party against a move to pick a nominee, Mr MacNeil added: “For a political party to do that would be control freakery of the highest order. If the whips want to turn the SNP into the Labour and Tory dinosaurs of the past, that’s how to do it. I would vigorously oppose any such move.”
Pete Wishart, the SNP MP who has chaired the Scottish Affairs Committee since 2015, said he is willing to stand in a full Commons election and defend his record.
His committee produced a cross-party report last year that recommended a review into whether the Scotland Office should be replaced, as well as conducting inquiries on Brexit and policies on immigration and drugs.The Perth and North Perthshire MP He said: “The group could say that they have a view, but it is not a matter for the group. It is a House decision so any SNP MP can stand. No one has challenged me before but I would stand again on my own merits.” Mr MacNeil was chairman of the Energy and Climate Change Committee from 2015 to 2016, before the government department it scrutinised was folded into the Department for Business