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9 January 2017

Why the SNP MPs didn’t get a rest this Christmas

Angus Robertson knows his history. 

By James millar

Any self-respecting school pupil will tell you that homework in the holidays – particularly the Christmas holidays – sucks.

So why did the SNP’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson load his charges with work to fit in around Christmas and Hogmanay?

His 54 MPs have been divided up into policy groups and instructed to return full reports to the leadership on their aims and plans for the new year.

It’s a way of keeping MPs busy. Though the internal reorganisation necessary to create the new policy groups suggests party bosses may be short of anything more useful to do.

It’s not hard to find MPs willing to grumble about the task.

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But grousing is all they can do. It’s a sign of how secure Robertson now is. As the second biggest beast in the SNP jungle – behind only the First Minister – he can afford to ignore the noises off from his crew.

In 2016, after Stewart Hosie’s trouser hose got him in trouble and out of the post of deputy leader, Robertson stepped up to become Sturgeon’s number two.

The election process flushed out little opposition.

Of the new MPs Tommy Sheppard was convinced to run but he was soundly defeated.

And with another SNP heavyweight John Swinney now in charge of education in Scotland, a brief which increasingly resembles a poisoned chalice, Robertson is riding an all-time high within the party hierarchy.

And he’s determined not to falter.

To that end he’s keeping his team busy despite already being, as one disgruntled member put it, “batshit busy, if that is a thing”.

Two things focus Robertson’s mind.

Firstly, although his MPs are undoubtedly active they lack purpose.

Upon arrival in Westminster he gave them all jobs and instructed them to get busy. They have largely done so, immersing themselves in Westminster’s ways by serving on select committees, picking up jobs in in all party groups and acquitting themselves well with Westminster hall and adjournment debates.

That’s led to accusations that, as one insider told me: “We are doing an awful lot, just doing most of it awfully.”

Robertson is seeking to tighten the operation in 2017. With his newbies blooded in the 18 months since the general election he’s now seeking to deploy them fully.

But there is another element to it. 

Robertson may have given the SNP MPs the opportunity to become better politicians by keeping busy at Westminster, but his motives were perhaps not entirely positive.

He also did not want their heads turned by the bright lights of London. 

Scottish MPs, more than any others, are a long way from home. Parliament’s family-friendly hours these days leaves long and lonely evenings that need to be filled.

Robertson’s been around Westminster long enough to have witnessed the worst of Scottish Labour MPs who saw their time in Westminster measured out in whisky measures at parliament’s bars.

Plus, the SNP’s case for independence relies on the party’s reputation for competence. That reputation is hard won and easily lost.

Robertson knows his history. 

With council elections due this year one tale in particular may have been brought to his attention.

The last time the SNP surged was in the late 1960s when Winnie Ewing won the Hamilton by-election and the party scooped council seats in the months after that.

In fact they won control of Stirling council, to the party’s own surprise and a bunch of unexpected and inexperienced politicians were suddenly in the spotlight.

Inevitably they were largely inept, control was relinquished and the normal order of the time was soon returned.

Robertson’s tactics in dealing with his own team suggests he’s not just aware of the precedent, he’s haunted by it. Which may explain why he’s driven his MPs as hard as ever over the festive period. After all, the best Christmas stories feature a ghost.