Other than shattering the very foundations of Scottish political life, the SNP is causing a stir elsewhere. Its new MPs are trying to take over the much-coveted corner seat on the “rebels’ bench” in the House of Commons.
The seat itself is on the corner of the frontbench along the aisle from the opposition frontbench, furthest away from the Speaker. Here it is:
This seat has been occupied by Dennis Skinner, Labour backbench veteran and monarch-bothering socialist firebrand, since he wrested it from David Owen in the early Eighties. But he has been sitting on that row ever since Edward Heath became Prime Minister in 1970; Skinner has been an MP – the “Beast of Bolsover” – since that year.
Here he is in action from his favourite seat – an ideal vantage point for heckling the Prime Minister:
But the new SNP contingent of 56 MPs attempted today to steal Skinner’s seat, in parliament’s first vote since it dissolved for the general election. Hours ahead of parliamentary business, which began at 2.30pm today, SNP MPs took it in turns to sit in Skinner’s seat in order to reserve it for their party.
Skinner managed to force them out of the seat, but he warns the SNP MPs he won’t give up without a fight when parliament sits next week. He tells me: “Today is one victory, and it is significant, but it will be a running battle.”
Every morning at 8am, Skinner reserves the seat with a prayer card. He won’t give away how he’ll beat the 56 MPs’ rota system – “It’s like a Premier League football match; you don’t reveal your plans” – but says, “I’m not going to go quietly… I’ve never had any trouble in 30-odd years [reserving the seat] when Big Ben chimes. That’s what they have to remember.
“I am here every day, and they are determined to try and get me out. It tells you a lot about them – the idea that you’re going to throw out an 83-year-old after 45 years. It’s a great political victory to be on the rebel bench. I don’t think some of them understand how it works at all.”
Skinner’s main gripe isn’t even the breaking of tradition. It’s that he believes the SNP MPs are slavishly following instructions. “They don’t understand what they’re doing on behalf of the leadership,” he says. “The rota system might work for a while, but they are just being lobby fodder for their leader. They might get fed up of that. I would. I’ve always been a backbencher; I’ve never been lobby fodder.”
I ask Skinner what he said to the new MPs he clashed with this afternoon in the chamber. “You don’t want to be in Westminster full-time, do you?” he replies. “You want to get away from Westminster with your Barnett Formula, so that my constituents have to pay money to Scotland, and with your North Sea Oil. Some of them didn’t answer at all. They were ordered to do it [try and take my seat].”
Keep an eye out for what might be the bloodiest political battle of our times.