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30 April 2024

The SNP’s factional war has only just begun

The momentum is behind the Sturgeon acolyte John Swinney to be the next first minister rather than Kate Forbes.

By Freddie Hayward

The race to be Scotland’s next first minister has begun. Candidates must submit their nominations to the SNP’s national secretary by 6 May. But it has quickly been whittled down to two candidates. John Swinney, flag-bearer for the party’s old guard and Nicola Sturgeon acolyte, is the front-runner. Kate Forbes, who is from the party’s right and was narrowly defeated by Humza Yousaf last time, is “actively considering” whether to stand. (Read Jason’s excellent profile of Forbes from last year.) Her allies are already briefing the media that she should enter the race to prevent a Swinney coronation and to give members a proper contest.

The key question here is whether the SNP opts for a continuity candidate, someone to unite the party and soothe its flustered friends in the Scottish Green Party, or someone who represents a change from a party establishment that has overseen a large drop in support. For some, the priority will be that the next leader can strike deals in Holyrood in order to allow them to pass laws and budgets as a minority government.

But then there is the electorate. Labour’s Anas Sarwar has excelled amid the SNP’s solipsistic obsession with independence and gender politics, occupying the political space around the NHS and the cost of living. The New Statesman’s polling model predicts that the SNP would lose 27 MPs if a general election was held tomorrow. Labour would gain all but one.

In an emotionally-racked, meandering resignation speech yesterday, Yousaf notably blamed his exit on “underestimating” the Greens’ anger at his decision last week to ditch the Bute House Agreement – not on the party’s policies or the state of public services. He said that each Scot should get the chance to be first minister for a day, but did not explain why it should have been him.

Poor polling will weigh heavily on the minds of the SNP’s upper echelons in the coming days. The scandal-hit, internally divided party is reminiscent of the Conservatives; they have more in common than either would like to admit. As Labour’s shadow Scotland secretary Ian Murray told the Financial Times, “For Liz Truss, read Humza Yousaf; for Nicola Sturgeon read Boris Johnson; for whoever comes next, read Rishi Sunak.” As I wrote yesterday, the only reason Labour would not have welcomed Yousaf’s fall was that he was such a Labour asset.

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The SNP’s suffocating hegemony over Scottish politics is cracking. One Scottish Labour MSP told me that the SNP “felt like the Death Star for years: nothing could hit them”. But the party’s grip on power is slacking. This new reality, and the prospect of opposition in Scotland and losing its position as the third-largest party in Westminster, will shape whatever introspection occurs in the coming weeks.

For now, the momentum is behind Swinney. He has picked up endorsements from the SNP’s current Westminster-based leader Stephen Flynn and its former Westminster-based leader, Ian Blackford, and Scotland’s Education Secretary, Jenny Gilruth. There are concerns that Forbes’ socially conservative views could turn off the party’s activist base. And as a Scottish Labour source said: “Young cardinals vote for old popes. No one in their thirties [Forbes is 34] wants their reputation tarnished with a defeat.”

Still, Swinney will have to convince those in the party – particularly MPs who are facing electoral annihilation later this year – that he will promote the policy and the personnel to head off a bullish Labour.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: Will the SNP finally return to Earth?]

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