The SNP is in free fall

Former SNP Chief Executive Peter Murrell
Former SNP Chief Executive Peter Murrell
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Unionists are having a cheery time, for a change. The apparent meltdown of the Scottish National Party in the immediate aftermath of Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation announcement has caused much delight among those who oppose the break-up of the United Kingdom.  And who can blame them? It has been a grim period in Scottish politics for anyone who doesn’t support the nationalist movement. Let us enjoy the moment, while it lasts.

But as the cod psychologist in an early episode of “Friends” once famously said: “I wouldn’t want to be there when the laughter stops.”

To be fair, the laughter may never stop, or at the very least it may continue for a very long time, perhaps even long enough for a pro-UK majority to assert itself in the Scottish Parliament and banish for at least a generation the prospect of independence.

But given events of the last 15 years or so, such hopes ought to be tempered. Yes, the SNP have been having the worst time of late. A senior and respected spin doctor resigned on Friday after passing to journalists membership numbers that turned out to be a work of fiction. The author of said fiction, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive and, incidentally, Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, resigned the following day. His interim replacement, former SNP minister Mike Russell, has since admitted the party is “in a tremendous mess”, something on which we can all agree.

For any other political party, this would probably be terminal. But for the SNP? I have my doubts.

The leadership contest sparked by Sturgeon’s announcement last month will be done and dusted one week from now. The chances of the party emerging from the hole it has dug for itself will depend on who wins and whether that person brings the necessary management and political skills to the table.

Unionists will be hoping for a Humza Yousaf victory. If you want to know why, compare the following statements made by Yousaf and his chief rival, Kate Forbes, yesterday. Forbes told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg: “Decisions within the SNP have been taken by too few people and I think that’s well recognised across the political domain. I think within government we need to make sure that it's a wide tent with a big team, rather than a very few people making decisions.

“Let’s put integrity, honesty at the heart, let’s make the case for change and it's not just a change in terms of our policies, it’s a change in terms of delivery and the culture of transparency.”

Meanwhile Humza, when asked about the membership numbers fiasco, told the BBC: “I’ve not delved into this – I don’t know the finances of the party because I don’t hold an office-bearer position. But clearly If I’m elected leader of the SNP it’s one of the first things I’d want to get up to speed on.”

It’s not the substance of what each candidate said that’s important; it’s the fact that Forbes is clearly a thinker, someone who understands how government works and who may well have an idea about how to fix the SNP’s woeful delivery record. Humza, on the other hand, whenever he speaks publicly, sounds like a public relations man who has learned very carefully by rote what he needs to say in order not to frighten the horses.

It is Humza who is the “continuity candidate”, who offers more of the same. My Unionist friends are right when they speculate that he will prove unable to maintain the SNP’s popularity, at least at the levels we have become used to under Sturgeon.

But the party is going to be in power at Holyrood for at least a few years more, probably longer, whoever leads them. An incompetent leader can do an awful lot of damage in that time, damage to our economy, our schools our hospitals and our transport infrastructure. Surely better, for the sake of Scotland, to have a first minister who is up to the job and who takes it seriously?

More broadly, away from the leadership election, it is unlikely that the recent unforced errors by the SNP hierarchy will materially change anything. Outside of Scottish politics, you could hope for a fundamental shift, one that would dislodge a particular party or movement from government. Yet whoever wins next week, even if it is Humza, they will receive not just a short-term boost just for being a new face at the top, but a glow that will likely outshine controversies of the past few weeks.

If there is to be an SNP decline, it will be a gradual one, perhaps triggered by the same phenomenon that handed 21 of their seats to the Unionist parties at the 2017 general election: a drop in enthusiasm that saw large numbers of SNP voters stay at home on polling day.

Reports of the SNP’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. But give them time, and the wrong leader, and we’ll see.