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12 October 2023

Lisa Cameron’s defection has deepened the SNP’s civil war

Humza Yousaf’s party is mired in angry personality clashes and splits over independence and policy.

By Chris Deerin

At least Lisa Cameron didn’t defect to Labour, the SNP high command will be telling itself today.

Cameron, since 2015 the MP for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow in the west of Scotland, has crossed the floor of the House to join the Conservatives. Normally, in SNP circles, switching to the Tories would be regarded as heresy on an almost unthinkable scale. The party of Brexiteers, tax cuts, heart-on-the-sleeve Britishness, Margaret Thatcher, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss – nothing could be more alien to the narrative of what the SNP and the broader independence movement stand for and what they stand against.

But timing is everything. Had Cameron joined Labour, especially in the wake of last week’s emphatic SNP defeat in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, it would have been seen as more evidence that the pendulum is shifting away from the SNP and back towards the Nationalists’ greatest rivals. It is Labour that looks set to steal a swathe of SNP seats at the next general election, and it is Keir Starmer’s party that seems to be attracting Scottish voters in increasing numbers.

As it is, by joining the Conservatives, Cameron will be written off as someone who was never a true believer in the socially just, centre-left nationalist cause. A one-off. A cuckoo in the nest. Forget about her.

This works up to a point. Destination aside, Cameron’s departure still adds to the sense that all is not well in Scotland’s ruling party. The Westminster group in particular has been through some grim times in recent years, including sex scandals, internal fall-outs, disaffection with Edinburgh, and of course Stephen Flynn’s ousting of Ian Blackford as leader of the party in the Commons. Cameron is only the latest symptom of a sense of drift and unease.

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Her stated reasons for quitting the Nats may leave a nasty taste in the mouths of voters, too. She says she has left because of a “toxic” culture in the Westminster group. A former NHS clinical psychologist, she has complained about feeling “ostracised” by the SNP after speaking out over the handling of allegations against Patrick Grady, the former party whip. In recent weeks, she said, her mental health has deteriorated and she has received no support from her party leadership, although Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, reached out to her. For a party that prides itself on making the case for “well-being” this is no small charge.

While it seems likely Cameron was already heading for deselection ahead of the general election – her constituency party was due to announce its preferred candidate today, and it was thought she would lose the nomination – her exit follows the suspension of the prominent MSP Fergus Ewing for rebelling against the SNP government. The suspension was opposed by, among others, Humza Yousaf’s challenger for the leadership Kate Forbes.

The days of iron SNP unity are now long behind us. Instead, it is a party riven like every other – divided over its policy on independence, split over its approach to public policy, and increasingly the subject of angry personality clashes. With a year to go until a likely general election and three years until the next Holyrood election, those tensions are set to grow.

[See also: The Scottish state is broken]

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