The Scottish National Party has proved time and again that the rules of political gravity don’t apply to it. It has maintained its astonishing double-digit lead in every poll published since the end of 2014, shortly after the independence referendum which the SNP called for and then lost.
There have been troubles along the way, many of which would have holed any other UK party below the waterline. Not least among them have been the scandals involving the building of new hospitals which turned out not to be fit for purpose, worrying gaps in school performance by those from poorer backgrounds and the revelation that Scottish university applicants are being short-changed by the self-imposed cap on domestic students as a consequence of the SNP’s adherence to their policy of “free” tuition.
But still Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister and SNP leader, appears to move smoothly forward, as untroubled by such matters as the Scottish public seem to be: two polls published at the end of January put her party on course for an astonishing 50 per cent of the vote in next year’s Holyrood elections.
The nationalists have maintained an iron discipline in their own ranks, both parliamentary and at grassroots level, that any other party would envy. Criticism, such as it is, of Sturgeon and the wider party leadership is muted at most. Party discipline is credited, at least in part, for catapulting the SNP to its pre-eminent position in Scottish politics and must, therefore, be preserved. But counter-intuitively, when Scottish government failures seem to have no negative impact on the party’s standing, the feeling grows that perhaps a greater degree of dissension from the party line might be welcome.
So it is that Angus MacNeil, the SNP MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (previously known as “Western Isles”), has become one of the few thorns in Sturgeon’s side. Known to be impatient with his leader’s strategy for achieving a second “once in a lifetime” referendum, MacNeil has suggested a typically dramatic and (some might say) reckless initiative to pressure Boris Johnson into authorising such a referendum. Specifically MacNeil has raised the possibility that all 47 SNP MPs at Westminster resign en masse, thereby provoking a “super Thursday” by-election across most of Scotland, success in which would be declared a specific mandate for another referendum.
It’s been done before, of course. In December 1985, every unionist MP representing a Northern Ireland constituency resigned in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement the Thatcher government had just negotiated and stood in by-elections across the province two months later in an attempt to seek a mandate to quash it. Unfortunately for them, the ruse failed because although 14 of the 15 MPs held their seats, one MP, representing Newry and Armagh, lost to the pro-Agreement SDLP. Thatcher, of course, wouldn’t have budged anyway, but the loss of the seat made the unionist case look even weaker.
Even removing the risk of losing one or more of the SNP’s seats in by-elections that few in Scotland would welcome, the ploy has not found favour at Bute House for other reasons. MacNeil is known as a supporter of former SNP leader Alex Salmond, and that is a division which, although it has existed for some time in SNP ranks, is finally coming to the fore.
The fight to be the SNP's candidate for Edinburgh Central – currently held by former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson – at the next Holyrood election is shaping up to be a proxy battle between Sturgeon and Salmond. Angus Robertson, the former leader of the SNP at Westminster, and a close supporter of Sturgeon, is likely to be challenged by Joanna Cherry MP, the high-profile QC who led the legal fight against Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament last year and is a strong supporter of Salmond.
The selection will therefore be seen as a mini by-election all on its own, with party members having to choose which side they’re on. Add to the mix the recent forced resignation of Sturgeon’s finance minister, Derek Mackay, after he was revealed to have sent hundreds of inappropriate texts to a 16-year-old schoolboy. And next month comes the trial of Salmond on serious charges of sexual assault, all of which he denies. Then, shortly after that, former Glasgow MP Natalie McGarry will be retried on charges of embezzlement from the Women for Independence campaign group.
The Mackay, Salmond and McGarry cases are external events over which Sturgeon has no control, but party discipline is another matter. The fact that her MPs feel free to propose mass by-elections, or even to suggest pressing ahead with a new referendum without the authorisation of Westminster and settling the matter in court – a tactic Sturgeon is at least unenthusiastic about – says something significant about the lessening of the leader's grip.
On Brexit Day, January 31, her internal opponents were encouraged when a much-anticipated statement from the First Minister in response to Britain’s departure from the EU and Boris Johnson’s continued refusal to countenance another independence referendum resulted in little more than another demand for patience from separatists. The online reaction from nationalists ranged from disappointment to fury.
Sturgeon said yesterday that she retains the necessary support to continue as First Minister, and she is right. No one is mounting an outright challenge to her leadership. But the clouds are gathering. The SNP has proved itself immune to the rule of political gravity, but there is another rule that is still to be tested: once a political leader has passed peak popularity, only a downward slope awaits.
Her growing number of party opponents are waiting, with bated breath and fingers crossed, to find out if she can defy that one too.