Nicola Sturgeon’s authority in the SNP has suffered a huge blow after an MP who has promised to stand up to her more was chosen by his colleagues as the party’s new Westminster leader.
The party’s 44 MPs voted at their annual general meeting for Stephen Flynn to take up the key role after he managed to oust Ian Blackford last week against the First Minister’s wishes.
Mr Flynn defeated Alison Thewliss, a close confidante of Ms Sturgeon, who had said she had “no interest” in the Westminster group having more independence from Ms Sturgeon’s government.
In contrast, Mr Flynn is expected to demand she gives the Westminster group far more say over SNP policy and strategy.
The Aberdeen South MP wants Ms Sturgeon to drop her opposition to new North Sea oil and gas fields, while many of his supporters are deeply unhappy at her plan to try and use the next general election as a “de facto” independence referendum.
Mhairi Black, an outspoken high-profile MP, was chosen as the SNP’s deputy leader at Westminster after they ran on a joint ticket. She beat Ms Thewliss’s choice for the role, Stuart McDonald.
‘Standing up for Scotland’
Although his supporters said Mr Flynn was keen to build a close working relationship with the First Minister, they admitted the pair had had few dealings in the past.
The 34-year-old was only elected an MP in the 2019 general election, having previously led the SNP group on Aberdeen City Council. However, he will on Wednesday have the responsibility for directing questions at Rishi Sunak at Prime Minister’s Questions.
Reacting to his victory, Mr Flynn said: “It’s an honour to be elected to lead the SNP’s strong and talented team of MPs during such a crucial period for Scotland.
“Under my leadership, SNP MPs will be relentlessly focused on standing up for Scotland’s interests and our democratic right to decide our future in an independence referendum.
“Families across Scotland are paying a devastating price under Westminster control, with Brexit, austerity cuts and the Tory cost of living crisis hammering household budgets.”
Despite scheming against Mr Blackford for months, he paid tribute to his predecessor and Kirsten Oswald, the outgoing deputy leader, saying they had been “a fantastic leadership team and will be welcome sources of advice as we move forward together”.
Ms Black, the Paisley and Renfrewshire MP, said: “I’m delighted to have been elected as SNP Westminster Deputy Leader and look forward to working closely with Stephen Flynn and MPs across the parliamentary party as we stand up for Scotland and make the case for independence.”
Ms Sturgeon stepped in to save Mr Blackford from an abortive coup three weeks ago, with sources saying that Mr Flynn was urged not to rock the boat ahead of the Supreme Court ruling on an independence referendum.
But, in a sign of Ms Sturgeon’s diminishing authority since the court ruled against her, Mr Flynn quickly moved again to remove Mr Blackford.
‘Personal humiliation for Sturgeon’
Owen Thompson, the SNP’s chief whip at Westminster, informed Mr Blackford after last Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions that Mr Flynn had 23 signatures supporting his leadership challenge - more than half the group.
One MP, who backed Mr Flynn, said last week: “Stephen coming back this quickly from a slap-down would not have happened six months ago. The fact that this is happening shows that her (Sturgeon’s) position has weakened.”
Craig Hoy, the Scottish Tory chairman, said: “Stephen Flynn’s victory over Nicola Sturgeon’s candidate is a personal humiliation for the First Minister and lays bare the deep splits within the SNP.
“Mr Flynn was the MP who brought down Ian Blackford, in open defiance of the First Minister who inexplicably stood by Mr Blackford despite his shameful mishandling of the Patrick Grady scandal.
“Now, having persuaded Alison Thewliss to stand as the ‘stop-Flynn’ candidate, Nicola Sturgeon has been overruled again by her rebellious Westminster MPs. It’s clear that the First Minister’s once-iron grip on her party is slipping.”
Mr Blackford resigned this time before he was pushed out, with Ms Sturgeon rewarding him with a new role trying to win round the business community to independence.
Mr Flynn was the clear favourite to become the new leader, with his supporters confident last week that he had the necessary support following months of canvassing.
But Ms Sturgeon’s allies persuaded Ms Thewliss to stand on Saturday in a last-ditch attempt to stop him being crowned. The Glasgow Central MP is highly respected among her colleagues and was seen as the only candidate who could beat him.
The result was thought to be too close to call heading into the AGM, which saw both candidates take part in a hustings before MPs voted electronically.
Earlier Mr Blackford, the Ross Skye and Lochaber MP, tweeted: “Today is my last day in office for the SNP as Westminster leader.
“Thank you to colleagues for the opportunity to serve both MPs and staff as well as all those who have supported and encouraged me. Good luck to my successor as I look forward to my next challenges.” Ms Sturgeon responded by thanking him.