Polling of Scottish seats caused a “political earthquake” at the beginning of this year. The SNP could win over 50 seats in Westminster, and even if it doesn’t do quite as well as expected, it will be well-placed to do a deal if Labour is to be the governing party.
The SNP’s leading figures have suggested that they would consider a “confidence-and-supply” agreement with Labour, in the event of a hung parliament, which would mean working with the governing party on a case by case basis.
But with such a significant exodus of SNP politicians to Westminster in May, who will be the politicians involved in the negotiations, and what will be the position of Alex Salmond, the fiery former First Minister and prospective MP?
Salmond is running in the constituency of Gordon, where the Lib Dem MP and deputy leader Malcolm Bruce is standing down, and is likely to win the seat comfortably, according to Ashcroft’s polling. Could Salmond, a boisterous and compelling political character, resist taking control of SNP’s work in Westminster once he wins?
When he announced his candidacy last year, he insisted he had “no interest in titles and fully support Angus Robertson, who is an excellent leader of the SNP at Westminster, a close friend and a fine MP”.
As well as this, the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has announced that she will be leading any negotiations with other parties when forming a new government in Westminster. When asked who else would play a part, Sturgeon told journalists at the end of January:
“If Alex is elected – as I would be fairly confident in predicting he will be – then Alex will be a key part of the team in Westminster and, of course, will have a part to play. But I am the party leader, Stewart [Hosie] is the deputy leader of the party, and we will lead the position.”
Indeed, Sturgeon appears to be fronting the party’s talks with the Greens and Plaid Cymru regarding a “progressive alliance”, appearing at a joint press conference about Trident in December.
But this hasn’t stopped rumours that Salmond will have more of a front seat in Westminster than the party is letting on. I hear from a former spinner for Sturgeon that Salmond – not Robertson or Sturgeon – will lead negotiations in Westminster:
“The feeling is that Alex Salmond will be doing the dirty dealings, he’s the bruiser of the party, and he’ll enjoy doing that,” they tell me. “Nicola Sturgeon will be in the background in terms of the Westminster deal – the idea is that they will have two dominions.”
They add that, “the A Team of the SNP is in Holyrood”, and point out that having some Holyrood talent like Salmond in the Westminster party shouldn’t be wasted when communicating with other parties to ensure SNP’s influence in England.
Although the SNP has ruled out propping up a Tory government in Westminster, my source also tells me, “Nicola will make deals with Ruth Davidson [the Scottish Tory leader] on a case by case basis, but it would be electoral suicide to work with the Tories in Westminster.”
An SNP spokesperson rules out the prospect of Salmond taking control of the Westminster party: “Angus Robertson will remain leader of the SNP group at Westminster.”
The party’s press office also points me towards Sturgeon’s comments that she will lead the Westminster talks.
When I contact Robertson, all he will tell me about his party’s plans for coalition negotiations is this:
“The election is a huge opportunity for Scotland to have power at Westminster – in what may be a hung parliament – by electing a strong team of SNP MPs who will always work in Scotland’s interests.
“This is exactly why the SNP has been clear that under no circumstances would we prop up a Tory government – unlike the Labour party who seem increasingly intent on doing a ‘Grand Coalition’ deal with the Tories.”
Without a firm response from the party’s Westminster leader about who will be leading the talks, Labour should prepare to sit opposite Salmond at the negotiating table in May.