Sex, lies and SNP politics: The ousting of Ian Blackford will not have been as easy as we've been led to believe – Murdo Fraser

Imagine a world in which a prince in the Royal Family is more likely to spill the beans on life in royal circles than a governing party politician is to tell you about the dynamics of the ruling SNP. No need to imagine – we live in it.

Now I am not suggesting that Netflix would be in the market to make “A Tale of Two Ferries”. A remake of “Some Like It Hot” under new gender rules might be short of laughs. And the documentary revelations from Prince Harry and Meghan may be ill-advised.

But it is remarkable that so little of the SNP internal machinations is publicly known that even their Westminster leader Ian Blackford didn’t know he was standing down until his MPs told him last week. The decision that he should go was apparently taken by what amounts to an all-male dining club of SNP MPs at Westminster: strange for a party whose overall leader says she would happily never shake hands with a man again, and wants people to be able change gender at three months’ notice.

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That policy in itself seems to so divide the SNP that it would appear to be a proxy for something else. It seems truly odd that a life-long equality campaigner like the SNP’s Joanna Cherry is an outcast for standing up for women’s rights.

After the 2014 referendum and the electoral success of 2015, many old heads feared the dangers of entryism in the SNP. Odd then, that if that did happen, the divisive issue was one of gender recognition.

Sex, in another sense, may have been at the heart of Blackford’s downfall. Perhaps he should have paid more attention to the downfall of Boris Johnson. The immediate cause of that was the then Prime Minister’s inability to deal with the inappropriate sexual behaviour of one of his whips. But of course, by then, Mr Blackford had done all that he could to shore up the career of the then SNP chief whip Patrick Grady despite questions about his sexual behaviour.

That is one clue to the SNP’s moral compass. Sexual impropriety in the Tory Party, their supporters argue, is a reason to leave the Union, while the cause of independence is a reason to keep schtum about such matters within the SNP.

We ought to remember that when it comes to allegations of a sexual nature, Nicola Sturgeon was found to have misled the Scottish Parliament by the MSPs’ committee inquiry into the Alex Salmond affair – the man the First Minister once described as being without a sexist bone in his body.

Ian Blackford, seen addressing the SNP conference in October, has been forced out as the party's Westminster leader (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Ian Blackford, seen addressing the SNP conference in October, has been forced out as the party's Westminster leader (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Ian Blackford, seen addressing the SNP conference in October, has been forced out as the party's Westminster leader (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

When we lay out all the public clues to life in the SNP, it does seem a deeply odd community. And the word ‘clues’ is the right one because how the SNP leadership operates remains a mystery.

Go back to the Alex Salmond affair. Now anyone writing a history of the SNP would have to conclude he has been the party’s greatest figure. In court he was charged with the most serious set of crimes but was found not guilty – or, in one case, not proven – of any one of them. You would have thought that at least you would have heard a sigh of relief from the SNP leadership, but not a bit of it. Instead there was an almost palpable sense of disappointment.

Who would have predicted in 2014 that, just a few years later, Alex Salmond would be unwelcome in the SNP, would set up his own party, and that Nicola Sturgeon would refuse to share a platform with her one-time mentor? When we get a glimpse of life in the leadership of the SNP what is presented as matter of fact would make the spiciest of EastEnders’ plotlines.

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Every political leadership demands party discipline, but there is a question of degree. The SNP was famously indisciplined in Alex Salmond’s first term as leader but all that changed in his second. Nicola Sturgeon has added an unhealthy steel to that inheritance.

For a long time, the Nationalists have regarded their cause as more important than the truth when it comes to the misbehaviour of some of their most senior figures. The campaign discipline of keeping mum has become a way of life in covering up the truth.

Now, all political parties are made up of human beings, and human beings tend to be flawed. Scandal may never be far away. But the SNP’s attitude to it seems different to other parties. Their instinct to deny and defend seems to run deeper than in their rivals. And that is why what really happened to Ian Blackford is more than just a matter of passing political gossip.

Remember this is the man accused of running the foulest of political campaigns against the late Charles Kennedy, shortly before his early and untimely death. The removal of a man capable of Blackford’s deeds will not have been as easy as we are being led to believe.

He lost the confidence of his Westminster colleagues while retaining that of his leader, Ms Sturgeon. If her writ no longer runs with the SNP group at Westminster then tectonic plates really are shifting. Blackford is forced out, but there is no opportunity for a stand-out MP like Joanna Cherry to replace him. Perhaps Ms Sturgeon does still hold sway.

Political parties like to do much of their own housekeeping in private. Like the making of sausages perhaps we don’t have to see every moment of the process. But with the knife work going on in the SNP in recent times, the public deserve to know what is really going on with our governing party.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife



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