The Herald on Sunday

Rumours abound of moves against the House of Sturgeon


THE SNP conference in June will inevitably be dominated by the constituti­on, but the annual gathering will also see the winner of the depute leadership contest announced.

Many theories exist in the party about the role and remit of Nicola Sturgeon’s number two, but some members want the contest to have a sharp edge.

According to these sources, the election should be about dispersing the power held by Sturgeon and chief executive Peter Murrell, who just happens to be the First Minister’s husband. Such an arrangemen­t is unpreceden­ted. It is akin to Philip May being chair of the Conservati­ves, Richard Leonard’s wife fulfilling the role of Scottish Labour general secretary or Melania Trump leading the Republican National Committee.

Murrell cannot be faulted – he was in post before Sturgeon took charge – but the concentrat­ion of power in one household is stark and makes some party members uncomforta­ble.

The list of anxieties is as follows. What checks and balances are in place to ensure a proper separation of powers? What would happen, hypothetic­ally, if a complaint was made about Sturgeon? Who decides whether resources are spent promoting independen­ce or boosting the profile of the party leader?

Sturgeon has a reputation for trusting a small number of individual­s. Even parliament­arians feel they are kept in the dark about important party business. A husband-and-wife team only fuels the perception of a guarded, secretive leadership.

Previous contests for depute leader have also served to consolidat­e Sturgeon’s power, rather than provide her with a fresh pair of eyes.

In 2014, three candidates – MSPs Keith Brown and Angela Constance, as well as MP Stewart Hosie – faced off in a limp, polite contest to be Sturgeon’s understudy. Hosie won comfortabl­y, but in retrospect it was probably not ideal for a politician who at that point was married to Sturgeon’s best friend at Holyrood, Shona Robison, to hold the post.

When Hosie resigned after a sex scandal, a four-way battle to succeed him was won by the then-SNP Westminste­r leader Angus Robertson. Given that Sturgeon and Robertson joined the party in the 1980s as teenagers and have been friends ever since, the MP’s victory was seen as another triumph for the old guard.

An interventi­on by the First Minister’s parents during the contest was also instructiv­e. Her dad Robin described Robertson as “a proven leader, great communicat­or and the best candidate”, while her mum Joan claimed that the MP’s “wealth of experience” made him the “right person” for the job.

Party figures were irritated by the endorsemen­ts and interprete­d the effusive praise as the First Minister sending an unsubtle signal about her preferred outcome. Robertson’s pitch was also telling. By saying “I can work with Nicola” he drew a contrast with his rivals – particular­ly left-wing MP Tommy Sheppard – and confirmed that good relations with the boss was an essential part of the job.

Four potential candidates have declared an interest so far. MSP James Dornan is a well-known Sturgeon loyalist who used to be a whip at Holyrood. He would be Sturgeon’s protective shield.

Keith Brown has his strengths, but party insiders question the wisdom of a Cabinet minister becoming depute leader. As Economy Secretary, Brown faces the challenges of low growth and a job-shredding oil industry. His day job would always be his priority – being depute leader could only be an afterthoug­ht.

The two other candidates – councillor Chris McEleny and party member Julie Hepburn – have a lower profile, but Hepburn’s bid raises an intriguing question. Does the depute leader have to be an elected representa­tive?

SNP parliament­arians are well resourced, handsomely paid and enjoy the media spotlight. They are well looked after. By contrast, SNP members pay their subs and get little back in return. Some may feel that taking power from the House of Sturgeon may be a start.

 ??  ?? Nicola Sturgeon, when she was Deputy First Minister, and Peter Murrell at home
Nicola Sturgeon, when she was Deputy First Minister, and Peter Murrell at home

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