Politicians only have relaunches when they are in bother. The news this week that Nicola Sturgeon’s planning a flurry of new ideas in the autumn shows the problems she and the Scottish National Party have.
Many in the party repeat the mantra that they won the election in Scotland, but some sound like they are trying to convince themselves.
One MP close to the leadership confessed to me: “If there was another election this year I’d only be confident of winning three seats – Ian Blackford’s in Skye and two in Dundee. We could be looking at Dundee becoming a sort of nationalist Hong Kong.”
Another admits that that the result in June could’ve been worse. “If the election had taken place on the Friday rather than the Thursday, I’d have lost my seat. It was one-way traffic to Labour.”
This sort of pessimism has not been the norm among Nats. But one month on from the general election they are still getting to grips with an altered reality.
Not only has the group in Westminster been trimmed from 56 in 2015 to 35 just two years later, but many of the survivors have seen their majority slashed, some to double figures, Stephen Gethins’ majority in north east Fife is just two.
And it’s Labour that’s on the march. The Tories may have won more – scooping 13 Scottish seats – but all sides are broadly agreed that their vote is now maxed out. In essence, they have turned many rural seats that had become the SNP heartlands back to blue. Labour is on the march in the central belt where red roots used to run deep and maybe still do. Hence the fear that another election – particularly against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party – could bring about wipeout.
Many in the party have never known a reverse before. The last time the party went backwards was 1979. It bummed along in the Eighties and Nineties, but since the start of the century it’s been on a relentlessly upward trajectory.
In 1979, after voting to bring down the Callaghan administration and losing seats, the SNP entered a period of soul searching. There is a new debate kicking off now – some might call it splits.
Even the previously untouchable First Minister is not above criticism. As one opponent put it: “They came to Westminster in 2015, thanks to Nicola’s good works. They’ve come back in 2017 despite Nicola’s efforts.”
Sturgeon’s decision to call in March for a second independence referendum before a Brexit deal is done is widely blamed for losing the party seats, because it turned off voters from the Yes and No camps who felt the time is not right.
But there are no calls for her to quit. It’s her husband who’s in the firing line, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell.
There’s plenty of whispers that it’s not healthy for the leader and the chief exec to be so close, that he will not challenge her and there’s the need for a separation of party leader from party machine. Some former big beasts, such as former Scottish cabinet ministers Richard Lochhead and Kenny MacAskill, have publicly suggested Murrell must go. Though his days look numbered, no one wants Murrell sacrificed to satisfy a post-election bloodlust. At worst, his exit will be stage managed, at best the relaunch will head off calls for his head.
That same desire for keeping up appearances is influencing decisions about what to do about Angus Robertson.
He saw his 10,000 majority crumble at the election, but for now he remains deputy leader of the party. Most are in no hurry to depose him. Still, on the green benches, a reappraisal is taking place among those who used to loyally support him. “As far as I’m concerned Angus Robertson is pure evil,” hisses one of his former charges.
A contest to replace Robertson would open up all sorts of divisions about the approach to independence, and possibly expose the gap between the leadership and the membership on the issue. (Though to be fair that was also predicted during the last deputy leadership contest in 2016 and Robertson, the party man, romped home).
Of course the deputy leadership issue would be immaterial if Robertson could get elected to something. It’s whispered that certain MSPs are being tapped up to spend more time with their family and create a by-election. Such plots rarely end well.
Robertson’s replacement as Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, has so far failed to provide the star quality that Robertson used to bring week in, week out to Prime Minister’s Questions.
Blackford was very quickly installed as leader by MPs following the election. It’s rumoured that was to avoid the party’s Edinburgh HQ from picking a candidate, though Blackford himself insists it was purely a matter of getting on with things. The contest was close, with Blackford and his rival Joanna Cherry believed to have tied after the first round of voting. But there is little evidence of the group splitting between Blackfordites and Cherryites. Instead, just like the bad old days of Scottish Labour, the MPs are muttering about their MSP colleagues in Holyrood.
For example, the Edinburgh administration has been accused of failing to generate any legislation since getting elected back in 2016. They countered that last month by bringing forward a bill to reintroduce docking puppy dogs tails.
Though widely seen as an effort to curry favour with the rural vote that had just voted Conservative at the general election, it has not played well with MPs, not least because they weren’t given any warning that it was coming. “Nobody knew anything about it,” griped one MP. “Until we started seeing references to ‘Nicola Sturgeon: puppy surgeon’ on our Twitter feed. Who’s thinking up this stuff? Are they going to introduce a bill for the annihilation of cats next?”
Much of the frustration among MPs derives from a feeling that they were found out at the election. Having won all but three of the Scottish seats in 2015, the 56 headed to Westminster to make Scotland’s voice heard.
But as a senior source in the party machine explains: “We won nearly every seat in Scotland but what did we actually change in two years here? We could win every seat and the numbers still wouldn’t stack up for us to actually effect much here. The challenge for the 35 that remain is to be relevant.
“As well as all the other factors after the independence referendum in 2015, the fact is the alternatives weren’t that appealing. Now there’s a new kid on the block, and he’s 68. Folk are looking at Labour and finding the prospect of a Labour government appealing and realistic. How do we counter that? We can’t be more Corbyn than Corbyn.”
The answer looks like it lies in the SNP MPs relying on a personal vote. In 2015 a yellow rosette was enough to secure victory. Whenever the next election comes, nationalist MPs will have to fight on their own record. That means they need to clock up a political CV that amounts to more than just “wants independence”.
It’s going to make them a more interesting group. And it’s another factor that’s going to make this a more interesting parliament.