Fighting like ferrets in a sack, it’s the Seriously Nasty (to each other) Party

By Graham Grant

THERE was a time in the not too distant past when Alex Salmond ruled the SNP with an iron fist and no disobedience was tolerated.

The ‘message discipline’ was, in fact, a touch Stalinist, and fittingly the man himself is now a presenter on a Kremlin-backed TV channel.

Nicola Sturgeon continued the tough approach in 2015 with a formal ban on Nationalist MPs speaking out against party policy — a prohibition that appears to have lapsed in spectacular style.

As Salmond awaits trial for a string of sex charges, including attempted rape, the former leader’s predicament has triggered a damaging split in the independence movement. The internal warfare has been exacerbated by the row over Nationalist MP and Salmond supporter Joanna Cherry, the ‘non-practising’ QC who is facing allegations of bullying.

She has criticised the hierarchy of her own party for failing to back her when she was the subject of online abuse, and alleged that she is the victim of ‘politically motivated smears’ — a subject she knows something about.

Back in 2017, Miss Cherry mistakenly briefed journalists at a TV debate that a nurse who complained about her low wages was in fact the wife of a Tory councillor — a hanging offence for some of her more rabid acolytes.

Jeane Freeman, then the SNP’s social security minister, had tweeted a selfie of herself alongside Miss Cherry with the unfortunate message ‘Spin girls ready to always set the record straight’, when in fact they had spread a lie.

The current bout of back-biting sparked by the claims against Miss Cherry is, according to colourful testimony from one party source, ‘like The Crucible [the Arthur Miller play about the 17th-century Salem witch trials], with children making accusations against good men and women based on superstition and hysteria’.

Miss Cherry has revealed she is the subject of threats and vitriol online, although she has disowned the recent abortive crackdown on pro-independence web trolls — which she said had ‘really upset’ the party’s ‘core support’ (who are, of course, a large part of the problem).

That attempt to flush out the worst offenders was instigated by senior Nationalist MPs including Stewart McDonald — who executed a swift U-turn after a fierce backlash from the aforementioned trolls — and lasted approximately five minutes.

The allegations surrounding Salmond have opened up deep fault-lines, with Miss Cherry perceived as a potential challenger to Miss Sturgeon’s reign, until recently more of a hegemony. Yesterday, the First Minister denied there was any in-fighting and praised Miss Cherry as a ‘massive asset’.

But a party that was once defined by craven compliance with leadership diktats now resembles a sack full of ferrets — leaving Miss Sturgeon more isolated than ever before and her authority severely eroded.

Former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, who was axed from his Cabinet role by Miss Sturgeon, and Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil, are among those openly and repeatedly criticising the party’s strategy on independence, warning of a restive power-base fed up with the lack of action on ‘Indyref 2’.

Former Nationalist MSP Chic Brodie, a critic of Miss Sturgeon’s ‘presidential’ style, has condemned her ‘incomprehensible’ decision to scrap a proposed £150million tax cut for the airline industry, accusing her of ‘headline hugging’ after she declared a ‘climate emergency’.

Happier times: Sturgeon with her former mentor Alex Salmond

Perthshire MP Pete Wishart, who once fed the crazed Nationalist web trolls he now claims to denounce, hopes to become the next Commons Speaker, a move sure to endear him further to the ‘core support’ that Miss Cherry spoke about so glowingly.

Salmond, as much as he dedicated his career to stoking animosity towards the Mother of Parliaments (despite clearly enjoying his long stint as an MP), surely wouldn’t have sanctioned such a brazen bid for a plum Westminster role — but he is no longer in a position to give advice on possible reputational damage.

It’s against this backdrop that the current psychodrama gripping the party has unfolded: a fight, or at least a series of unseemly squabbles, over the future shape and direction of the SNP and who will run it.

Whatever now happens in the criminal case against Salmond, the matter of the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints against him — forming the basis of a successful judicial review by the former First Minister — will come under scrutiny by a parliamentary committee.

There is simply no escape from the Salmond scandal for Miss Sturgeon, who remained in contact with her former mentor during that internal investigation. It may be impossible for her to walk away from that forensic dissection of her part in the affair and remain in office.

In the meantime, her critics say she has adopted a bunker mentality, operating in an echo chamber alongside a coterie of ‘yes men’, while the party that remains nominally under her control descends into fratricidal turmoil.

And there may have been some unusually frank conversations over the breakfast table in the Sturgeon household at the weekend, after it emerged her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, faces a no confidence vote at a meeting of the party’s National Executive Committee.

Many of the 400,000 election leaflets the party issued recently were sent to the wrong addresses, a bungle that is likely to cost more than £100,000 — and an error that in the corporate world might well have led to dismissal.

There is fury among members that a large proportion of the funding available to them for the European parliamentary elections — which Miss Sturgeon yesterday declared as one of her two top priorities (you can guess the other one) — has been wasted.

SNP chiefs apologised over the error and referred the matter to the Information Commissioner’s Office — a development that one imagines may have been greeted with a degree of schadenfreude in the Salmond camp.

That both members of the once unassailable ‘power couple’ at the top of the SNP should be facing uncertain futures would have been beyond contemplation only months ago — if one of them loses their position, then the other knows their days are also numbered.

All of which may explain those persistent rumours (denied by Miss Sturgeon) that she is busy updating her CV for a post at the United Nations — speculation that may be privately flattering but hardly instils confidence among ‘Yessers’ that another referendum is on the horizon.

For now, they must content themselves with rallies and marches — whose attendance numbers always seem to be about 70,000 more than the police estimate — but there can be no doubt they are running out of patience with the Sturgeon regime.

As unedifying as the Cherry and Salmond rows undoubtedly are, they have lifted the lid on the inner workings of a party that sought to keep them under wraps for so long — revealing a viper’s nest of seething ambition and ruthless treachery.

A formidable apparatus built on strict adherence to the party line is now in a state of escalating civil war — which threatens to ensure the lacklustre Sturgeon incumbency ends in an undignified orgy of back-stabbing and mutual recrimination.

*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on May 14, 2019.