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19 July 2018

SNP politicians are grumbling – but there’s nothing they can do about their main target

Because Holyrood matches Scots school holidays, SNP politicians have had a headstart in the plotting stakes.

By James millar

Among the ways that technology has changed politics is the trashing of the conventional wisdom that when MPs go away on their summer holidays, the plotting stops. Instead, the advent of countless WhatsApp groups means the scheming and grumbling can rumble on online.

And all parties will be partaking this year.

The Tories have much to consider as their party implodes. Jeremy Corbyn has spectacularly reheated the anti-Semitism row in time for recess. The Lib Dems might be pondering whether leaving Vince Cable in charge is a good idea given his vanishing act during the latest crunch Brexit votes.

And the SNP, that hitherto bastion of unity of purpose and mind, is cracking too.

After losing 21 seats at last year’s general election, there was inevitably some discontent. The shine came off Nicola Sturgeon for the first time, who was criticised for making her move on indyref2 too soon. However, the focus for the blame game last summer was Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive and husband of the First Minister. Former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill led the calls in the days after the election for Murrell to be booted. At the time, the smart money was on him being gone by autumn conference.

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He’s still in post.

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One year on, that’s frustrated and infuriated his critics. There’s little love for Murrell among elected members, other than his wife.

The evidence against Murrell, his deputy Ian McCann, and the party hierarchy stretches back to 2015. It seems counter-intuitive, but there is a growing constituency within the party that sees the general election that year – in which the SNP went from having six MPs to an astounding 56 – as a bad one.

The argument goes that the tide of history masked campaigning shortcomings. A truly outstanding campaign, these contrarians argue, could have delivered a clean sweep for the SNP in Scotland that year.

Instead of seeing 2015 as the supreme example of the SNP’s election-winning prowess, this narrative depicts it as a blip on what has been a downward trajectory since 2011. The SNP let Ukip get an MEP in 2014, before losing the independence referendum. In 2016’s Holyrood elections the party could not match its performance of five years previously and then at the snap general election came the great leap backwards in the number of MPs. (That result left a number of the losers feeling sore and unloved – a party used to winning had little in the way of procedures to help defeated candidates. Again, the ability to share their disgruntlement via smartphones has kept their sense of injustice and abandonment alive.)

The smarter thinkers in the SNP are joining the dots.

There’s a feeling among some that the party machinery is being degraded, but that the extent of the damage will only become clear when it is cranked up for an election in 2021 with one senior source predicting a “shocking result”. It is taking the Tory threat extremely seriously for the first time. (Labour, led in Richard Leonard by the political equivalent of a balloon on a stick, continues to wander the wilderness of irrelevance.)

One source claimed that “most elected members – that’s councillors, MSPs and MPs – agree the party is not being run well”. That level of discontent is not sustainable.

And Murrell’s not the only target.

Ian Blackford’s leadership of the Westminster group has drawn unflattering comparisons with Angus Robertson’s tenure in the same post. His dramatic ejection from the Commons appeared to be aimed at getting Scottish voters fired up about the “Westminster power-grab” the SNP insist is being perpetrated by the Tories under cover of Brexit. In that sense it worked – the SNP membership swelled and politicians from the other Scots parties report the phrase repeatedly coming up on the doorstep. But it was also about Blackford’s own position. By insisting his fellow MPs join him in a co-ordinated walkout, he bound them to his leadership. A senior source in the Westminster party revealed that had he not pulled that high profile stunt, moves would have begun to have him ousted.

But it’s in Holyrood where the limits to the malcontents options are exposed.

Sturgeon remains popular. A fairly extensive reshuffle earlier in the summer refreshed her team and removed obvious targets for dissatisfaction, such as underperforming health secretary Shona Robison.

Robison is a close personal friend of Sturgeon’s and, according to the official version of events, she left the government of her own volition.

If Sturgeon couldn’t sack her friend, the chances she can dismiss her husband are remote. And that speaks to the cosy nature of the top of the SNP, where the leader and the chief executive are married and the First Minister has girls’ nights in with her cabinet colleagues.

It might be nice for all concerned but is it healthy for the party?

There’s a feeling that the leader doesn’t challenge the chief exec and vice versa, but those that think that way know a change will be very hard to bring about. One senior source in the party machinery sums up their predicament: “There’s no way to decapitate him without taking Nicola out too. And nobody wants to do that. Yet.”

And so the critics must stew and grumble together on WhatsApp and their frustration will grow.

The SNP is still learning – it is relatively new to governing, to being a mass membership organisation, to being the third party at Westminster. It likes to claim it is not like the other parties.

In one sense that’s true. Because Holyrood matches Scots school holidays, lots of SNP politicians have had a headstart in the plotting stakes.

But this summer of soul-searching and discontent – mirrored in the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems – shows it is increasingly growing to be just like all the rest.