For a party that likes to boast of its wealth of talent, the SNP are finding it surprisingly tricky to mount a decent deputy leader contest.
With a majority of MSPs and nearly three dozen MPs, they’re not short of numbers.
The vacancy arose when Angus Robertson finally decided to step aside nearly two months ago. Despite having lost his seat to Scotland’s Tory surge in the June general election, he stayed on as depute leader for eight months, with the party keen to minimise the disruption and damage caused by that rare electoral setback.
In fact, the party, whose chief executive so happens to be Nicola Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell, seems in no hurry to replace Robertson. A National Executive Committee meeting immediately after Robertson’s resignation failed to implement a timetable. The expectation remains that the winner will be crowned at the party’s June conference in Aberdeen; yet while a series of hustings have been arranged, there’s been no official word on the contest’s logistics. Is the party machine awaiting the arrival of an acceptable candidate?
The current line up of candidates to replace Robertson includes James Dornan, a Glasgow MSP whose candidacy was met with near universal ridicule online, cooncillor Chris McEleny (that’s not a typo, in Scotland you really must call them cooncillors), and Julie Hepburn, the wife of a current MSP. To be fair to the latter, she’s a well respected party worker, but the fact it’s her husband Jamie Hepburn who is the MSP begs all sorts of questions about the SNP and society more widely.
So far, the only serious candidate is Keith Brown, Holyrood’s economy minister. And the party rejected him in 2014. But after Stewart Hosie’s trouser hose trouble and Robertson’s election defeat, the party is after its fourth depute leader in four years. That’s not healthy. And neither is the unseemly scramble to avoid the opportunity to serve.
The so-called talent has failed to step up. At Westminster, Ian Blackford was largely ruled out by geography – the logistics of being Westminster leader and MP for remote Skye and Lochaber are already a drag, the depute job would’ve required too much travelling. Similarly Kirsty Blackman, well thought of across the chamber, has to get up and down between London and her Aberdeen constituency.
But what about Tommy Sheppard and Joanna Cherry, for starters? One stood to be depute leader in 2016, the other to be Westminster leader last year. One race, it seems, has been enough for them.
Then there’s the rising stars like Hannah Bardell and Stewart McDonald. Both undoubtedly sniffed it before recoiling.
In Holyrood, there’s been a similar reticence. John Swinney serves as deputy First Minister but, as the only SNP leader with a Holyrood record of played one, lost one, there’s no appetite to elevate him again. Transport minister Humza Yousaf ruled himself out in early February – too early, perhaps, as the very next month he went on to fight a good war against the Beast from the East. Even if he couldn’t keep the transport system running, he posted lots of videos to prove that he was at least at Transport Scotland HQ doing something. Derek Mackay, too, ought to be in the running, given he has the big finance brief and isn’t short of ambition, yet he’s also backed off.
Stranger still, is that rather than being big or scary, it’s largely up to the incumbent to define the depute leader job.
Certainly, the leadership would rather it wasn’t taken by an independence headbanger constantly piling pressure on Sturgeon to call indyref2, even if that is what a large chunk of the party’s swollen membership would like. With the election of previous deputes – Hosie, then Robertson – the party got what it wanted. The hidden hand of the SNP machine may be detected in this current vacuum. Was Sheppard, seen as a standard bearer of the spirit of 2014, persuaded to sit this one out? Have arms been twisted precisely because whoever becomes depute leader will be seen by many as leader-in-waiting and Nicola’s not yet ready to anoint a successor?
On both counts, it’s easy to see why Julie Hepburn is being talked up – she’s no threat, she’ll spend her time organising – or why Keith Brown would be an acceptable choice. Taking the depute job would give him the heft to get into the race to replace Nicola – up against the likes of Yousaf and Mackay and maybe Jeane Freeman, should she make a decent fist of setting up Scotland’s new social security service – but it wouldn’t make him a shoo-in.
There is however another name in the frame. The SNP’s Westminster contingent are keen to have a dog in the fight. It would look lame if the runners only included an MSP, a cooncillor and a party member, but the MPs can’t find a candidate. And there are plenty of nods and whispers when the topic is discussed.
Chris Law is emerging as viable candidate. He’s a very recognisable figure in Westminster with his ponytail and tweed three-piece suits, although he hasn’t made an impact to match his profile. It is surely no coincidence that in the last month he’s called for Aung San Suu Kyi to be stripped of the Freedom of Dundee, the city he represents. This weekend saw him, for the first time, talk about his childhood experiences in foster homes and in care. It was a soft soap way to boost his profile and test the response, as well as revealing he has a hinterland.
He’s unlikely to threaten the First Minister’s mantle and has a fine track record of firing up the troops, having come to prominence taking a repurposed Green Goddess fire engine on a Spirit of Independence tour of Scotland during the 2014 independence referendum.
It’s an enticing prospect if only for the amusing sight of six-foot-something Law sharing a platform with the significantly shorter Keith Brown.
Brown, a party stalwart and former Marine, would still start favourite, but the party would have a contest.
Nicola Sturgeon might not welcome it, as she’d rather folk didn’t question her approach on Brexit or indyref2, or even think about a future without her. But a debate about ideas in a party that’s been in power for over a decade would likely be a good thing. The question remains why more of the party’s so-called talent don’t want to contribute.