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2 October 2020

The SNP has shown how parties should deal with Covid rule-breakers

The reckless actions of Margaret Ferrier serve mainly as a reminder that Dominic Cummings has never been punished for his breach of lockdown restrictions.

By Stephen Bush

Margaret Ferrier, the MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, has lost the SNP whip and is facing the end of her political career after it emerged that she had travelled by train from her constituency to London while awaiting the results of a coronavirus test. She attended parliament and, after receiving a positive test result, then travelled back to Rutherglen, again by train. Ferrier has referred herself to the police and Nicola Sturgeon has asked her to step down.

I suppose if nothing else we should be grateful that she chose the most environmentally friendly way to spread the novel coronavirus, via public transport. What are the political implications? Probably very few: the opposition parties are pressing the SNP to further clarify what it knew and when (Ferrier informed the party about her test result on Wednesday, but not about her Covid-spreading round trip), and some are privately, and excitedly, talking about the opportunity this presents to undermine public perceptions that the Scottish government has handled the pandemic well.  

[see also: Why SNP chief executive Peter Murrell is facing an internal revolt]

But the reality is that people aren’t daft, and they can tell the difference between an act of reckless stupidity by a backbencher and the conduct of a government as a whole, not least because Ferrier has lost the whip within hours of her actions being made public.

While Douglas Ross, the new Scottish Conservative leader, did resign from the government over Dominic Cummings’ lockdown breach, the political reality is that the Conservatives’ indulgence of the Prime Minister’s aide has set the bar. Sturgeon and the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, have easily cleared that bar simply by removing the whip from Ferrier and saying she should consider her position.

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[see also: The dangerous legacy of the Cummings affair]

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Does it mean a by-election in Rutherglen and Hamilton West? Ferrier is facing calls to quit from her former SNP colleagues as well as from opposition politicians, but no one can force an MP to quit parliament outside the limited powers of the 2015 Recall of MPs Act. The act triggers recall proceedings when MPs face a custodial sentence of less than a year or if the Committee on Standards suspends an MP for at least 14 days. Ferrier’s lockdown breach doesn’t carry the risk of a custodial sentence – but that her actions endangered MPs and everyone else who works at Westminster means the Committee on Standards might think she has a case to answer.