Is the SNP about to implode?

As civil war rages between the Salmondites and the Sturgeonites, the mood in the party is anxious and distraught.

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It has been a rule of Jeff Bezos’s decades-long reign at Amazon that every day is “Day One”: that each 24 hours should be treated like the first of a new start-up. Otherwise, he warns, companies stop looking at outcomes and instead become – fatally – obsessed by process. Day Two, which must never dawn, is “stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day One.”

If Nicola Sturgeon and her SNP have shared anything with Bezos and Amazon it has been this almost maniacal focus on freshness, a relentless war on complacency and any emerging sense of “job done”, the constant relitigation of the big arguments. They have behaved through 14 years of government as if they were still in opposition – outsiders to the establishment, prevented from realising Scotland’s true potential by the restrictions of the Union, simply itching to get on with the real job. The intensity is, after all this time, both impressive and unnerving. A lava flow of fiery press releases on issues large and small floods my inbox every day, ministers who might have been pensioned off long ago still seem to approach politics with unblunted energy, the will to win has kept its whetstoned sharpness. 

It has worked. In their own way, the Nats have been every bit as successful as Amazon. They are imperiously market-dominant. They have completed aggressive takeovers of political space and voters that once belonged to their competitors. The brand has built international recognition and respect, as has the boss. Even the Covid pandemic has been good for them. 

They had seemed to be moving inexorably towards what they regard as the ultimate Day One. However, this now appears to be at risk. The SNP has become fixated on process at the expense of outcome, and even gives the impression it is close to self-combusting. To the uninvolved, the events of recent months have verged on insanity. It is even conceivable that Sturgeon could be forced out of her job before May’s Holyrood election, that the expected overall majority could evaporate, and with it any hope of a second referendum.

[See also: By sacking Joanna Cherry, Nicola Sturgeon has made her nemesis more dangerous]

On Tuesday 9 February, Alex Salmond is expected to appear before the Holyrood committee investigating the Scottish government’s handling of sexual assault complaints made against him. The former first minister is behaving like an escaped bull in a market, set on destroying anything and anyone that gets in his way. Having been cleared in a criminal court of the charges, he believes Sturgeon and her leadership circle plotted to destroy him. He intends to return the favour.

It’s not yet certain that Salmond will show up for the committee. He wants to refer to evidence obtained by his team during the criminal trial relating to private messages between members of Sturgeon’s camp, but this has been blocked by the Crown Office. If he does appear, he is expected to accuse the First Minister of misleading parliament about her various meetings with him. If proved, this would be a breach of the ministerial code – by the letter of the law, it could force Sturgeon from office.

This perhaps remains unlikely. But the drama is certainly heightening – earlier this week the First Minister fired her bête noire, Joanna Cherry, from the SNP front bench at Westminster. Cherry, an ally of Salmond and a critic of Sturgeon, has led a campaign against her own party’s support for trans rights, and has also pushed for a more aggressive approach to securing independence. She is believed to have her eyes on Sturgeon’s throne.

It is hard to estimate how much sympathy Cherry has in the party. Her supporters include many cybernats, eccentric figures such as the former diplomat Craig Murray, currently tweeting his way through his own contempt of court trial, and the abrasive blogger Wings Over Scotland. The Cherry team have been loud on social media, though relatively few in number. However as further evidence surrounding the Salmond affair emerges, they seem to be picking up more support than the leadership would like.

[See also: Will Alex Salmond's rage be the downfall of Nicola Sturgeon?

At the centre, says a source, the mood is both “anxious and distraught. What Alex is doing is unfathomable. Joanna Cherry has become entirely self-obsessed but is really just a foil for Alex. They’re supported by a core base of populist conspiracy theorists. It’s classic Scottish self-harm.”

Sturgeon has, of course, spent the past 12 months focused on managing Scotland’s pandemic response. She may have let too much else slide – a recent “Plan B” proposal for achieving a referendum if Westminster refuses to grant one did not go down well with moderates, who saw it as a sop to the hardliners. Meanwhile, deep-seated problems with Scotland’s public services and economy have gone unaddressed. “She needs a comprehensive reset,” says an ally. “HQ needs a revamp. Her key advisers need to be refreshed. The cabinet needs to be refreshed – though so many ministers are standing down in May that this will happen anyway. Policy needs to be rethought, too.”

The announcement this week that Bezos is to step back from his post as CEO of Amazon raises an obvious question: can Amazon be as successful without him in the hot seat? The machine will plough on, and perhaps his replacement will shine. But the threat of Day Two is always there: “this kind of decline would happen in extreme slow motion. An established company might harvest Day Two for decades, but the final result would still come.” Words to weigh for Sturgeon, her internal opponents, and the Yes movement as a whole.

[See also: Will Scotland vote for independence? Our poll tracker]

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's Scotland editor.

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