Ian Blackford watched the election of his successor Stephen Flynn via zoom, surrounded by his closest allies. And for boxes.
His impending forced departure from the wood-panelled two-story office suite bestowed on the leader of parliament’s third party, was a source of sadness and frustration.
Nicola Sturgeon had made her own unhappiness clear to her colleagues. Because this brutal political work was a rare display of lack of discipline in his ranks.
Public criticism of colleagues is explicitly prohibited in the Westminster group’s bylaws, but in private, SNP MPs can be surprisingly virulent.
“What a ***”, is the evaluation of a parliamentarian about a colleague. “He is an imbecile and a bum,” is how another parliamentarian sums up another SNP politician.
A nationalist representing a large rural plot “has an ego the size of his electorate.” A lesser known MP is “a zoomer… as thick as two planks.”
Dealing with this mixed talent is now the unenviable task of the SNP’s new Westminster leader, Mr Flynn.
His hasty election was not only the latest evidence of division within the party, but also a clear sign of a generational change.
The ‘successful job’
Flynn was both the MP behind the coup and its main beneficiary, but he never directly confronted Blackford.
Instead, after months of courting MPs and even after claiming he had “no intention of running”, Flynn got his friend and fellow MP David Linden to do his dirty work.
Acting as an emissary, Mr. Linden met with Mr. Blackford’s head whip and showed him a long list of names. The message: We have the backing of the majority of SNP MPs and would win a leadership challenge. His move.
“Even if he won by a handful of votes, Ian would be a dead duck,” said a colleague.
A conversation with Mrs Sturgeon and her offer of a new role in her latest push for Scottish independence helped Mr Blackford make a final decision.
The prime minister’s frustration was not solely due to the loss of a trusted ally. But with multiple public service crises in Scotland and internal divisions over trans legislation, Ms Sturgeon has limited bandwidth to deal with more SNP drama. “She runs a bloody government,” argued one parliamentarian. The less he thinks of us, the better.
the new boss
When I meet Mr. Flynn for coffee a few days after his victory (he opts for an oatmeal flat white), a smile spreads across his face when I ask him about the coup.
He follows up with the tenuous assertion that there was no such thing. As for Linden’s role in the Blackford shipment, “I don’t know of any lists” is his reply.
However, the new leader seems confident in his abilities and incredibly relaxed about the challenges ahead.
His PMQ debut was performed without notes, drawing applause from political commentators.
“I read a lot and have confidence in the House of Commons even though they yell at me,” he tells me. “It’s an attractive and relatively uncommon approach, particularly for frontbenchers.”
By contrast, Rishi Sunak attends the weekly sessions armed with a ring binder of information, while Keir Starmer holds a wad of written questions.
“Sounds like Stephen believes in some of that stuff,” argued a friend who disparages Blackford’s career in financial services. “I prefer that to a very rich banker talking about poverty.”
The Westminster Group
Aside from his budding relationship with Ms. Sturgeon (“I’m sure we’ll catch up in the New Year, she’s been very supportive”), Mr. Flynn will have to manage the complex set of personalities among his own crowd of parliamentarians “Everyone has a complaint,” said one parliamentarian.
Veteran MP Pete Wishart’s spirited resignation letter on leaving the SNP front was striking precisely because such displays of division are rare in the party.
Beyond the gossip, there is a bigger issue, seen by some as a long-running sore within the Westminster SNP group: is it MPs or MPs who are leading the fight for an independent Scotland? Who is the vanguard and who is the rearguard?
SNP reveals new plan to secure indyref2 without Westminster backing
Stewart McDonald ‘removed’ from committee after SNP Westminster leadership changes
Nicola Sturgeon heckled over Scottish government gender reforms
It can lead to mixed messages for fragile egos according to one of those involved: “In Westminster, you are made to feel like a demigod. But go back to Scotland and its local councilors and MSPs who wield power.”
Flynn faces a paradox: he may now have the biggest party media platform in the UK, but he has almost no power and there is no chance of that changing.
Motivating forty-five parliamentarians with such a bleak outlook is difficult. Especially as polls suggest Scottish Labor is on the rise and therefore the SNP is likely to lose in the general election.
A senior Scottish Labor figure said the party is now “competitive” in 15 seats, including the seven held by the nationalists in Glasgow.
the special conference
Flynn is seen as more impatient for independence than his predecessor, but remains mum when I bring up the most significant event in 2023 for the SNP: its special spring conference to discuss the party’s strategy on leaving the UK.
Following the November Supreme Court ruling that a second referendum cannot take place without Westminster’s permission, Ms Sturgeon announced that a meeting would be held to discuss a de facto referendum on independence.
Unlike the party’s annual conferences, which are often carefully choreographed and drama-free, this event can be the moment when internal divisions come to the fore.
Some of Ms Sturgeon’s cabinet ministers privately criticize her current plan, and others argue that her drive for independence has been neither urgent nor radical.
Discussions about the prime minister’s future are almost endless, even if Ms Sturgeon’s political eminence and iron grip on the SNP mean she alone will choose the moment of her departure. Many believe that this will likely happen after the 2024 election.
Her continued presence at the top of Scottish politics makes it hard for many to imagine a successor. It also means that the pool of potentials is large.
Ms Sturgeon has been in the Edinburgh government since the last weeks of Tony Blair’s term. After eight years in office, she is Scotland’s longest-serving prime minister, and that followed seven years as deputy to Alex Salmond.
Mr Flynn was eleven years old when Mrs Sturgeon was first elected to the Scottish Parliament. His deputy Mhairi Black was five years old. The SNP has been in government for his entire adult life and is now part of a new generation.
And that, along with the marginal nature of Mr Flynn’s Aberdeen South seat, is why some are predicting that after leading the party in Westminster, he has his sights set on the top job in Edinburgh.
“That’s not my approach,” he says. “My focus is to get us out of here. I’m not going to deviate from that goal.”
2023 could be a year of big changes within the SNP. If so, Flynn is likely to play a big role.