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.