Nicola Sturgeon's 'crazy' position on North Sea oil faces challenge from SNP's rising star

Oil rigs in the Cromarty Firth in Invergordon, Scotland
Oil rigs in the Cromarty Firth in Invergordon, Scotland

The SNP MP who ousted Ian Blackford as the party’s Westminster leader wants to convince Nicola Sturgeon to drop her “crazy” opposition to new North Sea oil and gas fields, allies have said.

Stephen Flynn, the clear frontrunner to replace Mr Blackford, is said to take the “pragmatic” view that it would be better to continue production of fossil fuels in Scottish waters rather than import them from abroad to meet domestic demand.

Friends of the MP for Aberdeen South, which includes thousands of North Sea oil workers, said he hoped to convince the First Minister that she should water down her “crazy” opposition to new fields being developed.

They warned he faces an uphill task if elected as Mr Blackford’s successor because Ms Sturgeon “does not listen” to many people over party policy and the pair “don’t have much of a current relationship”.

But they said he would be keen to work well with her and emphasised that her failing to change her stance on oil and gas threatens to damage the economic case for independence.

Scotland’s budget deficit

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has predicted that Scotland’s deficit would be similar to the UK’s this year for the first time in a decade thanks to soaring North Sea oil revenues.

The respected economic think tank said oil and gas revenues would reach £15 billion this year and £21 billion next year. This represents an almost 30-fold increase since 2019/20 and 2020/21, when they totalled less than £1 billion.

Scotland’s budget deficit may even be lower than the UK’s in 2023/24, having been by far the highest in Europe in recent years. However, Mr Flynn’s supporters said this boost could not be fully exploited by the SNP if it opposed further developments.

The Aberdeen South MP clashed with Patrick Harvie, one of the two Green ministers in Ms Sturgeon’s government, a year ago after Mr Harvie argued that “only the hard-Right” supported new oil and gas exploration.

Flynn would ‘stand up to Sturgeon’

Mr Blackford, a loyal ally of the First Minister, announced this week that he would not re-stand for leader of the SNP Westminster group at its annual general meeting next Tuesday.

Although he denied being forced out, SNP insiders told The Telegraph he had to resign after it emerged Mr Flynn had the necessary support among the party’s 44 MPs to oust him.

The 34-year-old, who only became an MP in the 2019 general election, is expected to be named Mr Blackford’s successor at the AGM and may be crowned uncontested.

Stephen Flynn - ROGER HARRIS
Stephen Flynn - ROGER HARRIS

His supporters say they believe Mr Flynn will stand up to the First Minister more than Mr Blackford did, and give MPs more influence over party policy and strategy.

They emphasised that he agreed with Ms Sturgeon’s views on most issues, including higher welfare and immigration, but admitted he took a different stance on oil and gas.

“The First Minister’s position on that has become a bit crazy over the past year because she enjoyed showboating at Cop26,” one of Mr Flynn’s allies told The Telegraph.

“There needs to be a serious discussion - his constituency has thousands of jobs in that industry that would be lost before renewables could replace them.”

A ‘constituency interest’

An MP who is supporting Mr Flynn for the group leadership confirmed his views diverge from Ms Sturgeon’s on the issue, saying: “He would have a constituency interest, which should be taken into account.”

They said he had been building support to challenge Mr Blackford for several months, with his fellow MPs growing increasingly dissatisfied with the Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP’s performance.

He informed the SNP leadership he intended to challenge Mr Blackford for the leadership a few weeks ago but he was initially talked out standing by Ms Sturgeon’s representatives.

But, in a sign of Ms Sturgeon’s diminishing authority since the Supreme Court ruled she does not have the power to stage an independence referendum, Mr Flynn quickly moved again this week to remove Mr Blackford.

Both Mr Blackford and Ms Sturgeon denied he had been ousted, with the First Minister handing him “a new role at the centre of the SNP’s independence campaign, leading on business engagement”.