Sturgeon slipped up over oil – now she could face a damaging new SNP civil war

ALEX Salmond has a nasty habit of resurfacing at awkward times for his former protégée — sometimes with uncomfortable home truths.

This time, he’s warning that Nicola Sturgeon risks throwing away Nationalist support in the North-East by turning her back on the oil industry.

He claimed that it would be ‘akin to Margaret Thatcher, having closed the pits, then campaigning for votes in the old mining areas’ of Fife.

Whatever you think of him, the former First Minister did have the nous to get the SNP into power and secure a referendum, even if he then lost it.

And many still regard him as something of a spiritual leader for the separatists — so you can be sure that Miss Sturgeon has been well-briefed on his comments.

His intervention is significant because it’s more evidence of a widening schism within the SNP over the Cambo oil field, near Shetland, which could yield 800 million barrels of the black stuff previously at the centre of the SNP’s independence pitch.

Miss Sturgeon had called for the UK Government to take a fresh look at whether to approve Cambo — and just days after the Cop26 climate change summit she was more forthright, saying: ‘I don’t think Cambo should get the green light.’

This position serves a number of purposes — it keeps her power-sharing Green partners sweet, and she needs them to rescue the SNP’s independence dream.

But it’s also a cynical political calculation: if Boris Johnson cancels Cambo, she can blame him; if he doesn’t, then she can argue that at least she tried to have it stopped.

Back in 2014, it was a different story — in happier times for Miss Sturgeon and her old boss, they both put all of their chips on oil and gas in the White Paper spelling out how independence would work.

Some of the assumptions about soaring oil prices turned out to be very wide of the mark.

But at least it was an idea — the current SNP hierarchy is stumped on issues such as currency and clueless about economic growth, now or in the future (and the same goes for the anti-capitalist Greens).

Miss Sturgeon can pivot as circumstances dictate, shifting from one policy to another — she’s a political chameleon.

But Mr Salmond has spelt out the potential pitfalls — the support base the SNP painstakingly developed over many years in the North-East could be lost.

Last week Fergus Mutch, the SNP candidate for Aberdeenshire West in this year’s Holyrood elections and a former head of communications for the party, also took the unusual step of questioning the judgment of the party’s top brass.

Sturgeon and Salmond: her volte-face could cost SNP votes

He said: ‘Did the Scottish Government announce 100,000 new green jobs and magically phase out domestic demand for oil and gas today? If so, fantastic news well done.

‘If not, “Stop Cambo” doesn’t get us very far. In fact, it gets us unemployment and more imported oil for decades.’

Last week, former minister Fergus Ewing attacked the SNP’s coalition partners during a debate about the need to upgrade roads, adding: ‘I particularly address that reflection to what has been dubbed today our kaftan-clad colleagues.’

How many others within the SNP think of their new environmentally friendly comrades in the same less than charitable way?

Bear in mind that the party is split already over trans rights, and Miss Sturgeon is determinedly ploughing her own furrow on those reforms despite a growing backlash.

The oil standoff could trigger a new bout of civil war and put an end to the Sturgeon era — her loyal troops can put up with a lot, but they’d probably draw the line at electoral Armageddon.

So much for the possible repercussions for the SNP — the more pressing question is what it means for Scotland.

A move away from oil would put more than 100,000 jobs in jeopardy, as Mr Mutch predicts — and the idea that most of them could be switched into the renewables sector is a pipe dream.

Miss Sturgeon has primed an economic time bomb, dressing up her volte-face as a ‘progressive’ move — when in fact she’s progressing towards a jobs bloodbath.

The previous plan for a ‘just transition’, which entails a gradual shift from fossil fuels to renewables, has evaporated.

The SNP Government’s own Just Transition Commission was set up to ensure that the transfer from traditional energy source was ‘undertaken in partnership with those impacted by the transition to net zero’ — a vow evidently consigned to the scrap heap.

Meanwhile, the powerful Oil and Gas UK trade body has warned that stopping domestic oil and gas would mean more imports from Russia and Qatar, at greater expense to the British taxpayer and with a bigger carbon footprint.

If you want an indication of the sure-footedness of the SNP on wider economic matters, take a look at the saga over a Highland aluminium smelter and a nearby hydro power plant.

Miss Sturgeon’s government offered a financial guarantee to metals tycoon Sanjeev Gupta which, it emerged last week, was worth £586million.

Concerns about the guarantee having to be invoked have grown since the collapse of Greensill Capital, the main lender to GFG, Mr Gupta’s company.

Some critics have suggested that the guarantee breached EU rules on public cash being given to firms — something which the Scottish Government denies.

The Government had refused to confirm the value of the guarantee — insisting that it wasn’t a ‘public document’ — but was forced to release the figure by the Scottish Information Commissioner last week, after a lengthy freedom of information battle with a newspaper.

Fighting to keep details of the Gupta deal secret hardly suggests a government committed to transparency.

And all of this was done, exposing the taxpayer to massive risk, with the intention of safeguarding only 150 jobs.

Now more than 100,000 jobs could be sacrificed thanks to Miss Sturgeon’s about-turn on oil exploration and extraction — and it seems she’s willing to let them go.

Ironically, the Gupta deal was brokered by the then Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing back in 2016 — and as we’ve seen, now that he’s no longer in ministerial office, he’s not exactly in diplomatic mood.

Miss Sturgeon is said to have been heavily involved in secret talks with Mr Gupta — maybe backbencher Mr Ewing, with little to lose, will shed more light on these discussions.

Either way, it’s clear that the Sturgeon regime is riddled with countless hypocrisies, as internal dissent simmers close to boiling-point.

Even those open to persuasion about independence might have second thoughts when it becomes clear the present green and progressive SNP Government can’t keep the lights on.

And if Mr Salmond is right, Miss Sturgeon could be taking Scotland’s ruling party down a dangerous road — into electoral oblivion.

  • This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on November 23, 2021.
  • *Follow me on Twitter: @GrahamGGrant