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The words cloud, land and cuckoo come to mind in regards to SNP's independence hopes

GLASGOW, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 11: SNP leadership candidates Kate Forbes (left) and Ash Regan during a SNP leadership hustings at the University of Strathclyde on March 11, 2023 in Glasgow, Scotland. Scotland's current First Minister, Nicola
GLASGOW, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 11: SNP leadership candidates Kate Forbes (left) and Ash Regan during a SNP leadership hustings at the University of Strathclyde on March 11, 2023 in Glasgow, Scotland. Scotland's current First Minister, Nicola

AND I thought the Conservative leadership contest was bad. Which it was. But the SNP is doing its level-best to surpass last summer’s awfulness and trash its own brand.

While loyal Nationalists try, unconvincingly, to put a positive gloss on the current acrimony as some kind of long-overdue catharsis, their political opponents are relishing the SNP’s doom-loop.

The rippling turmoil has produced a cabinet of curiosities, which has done little to disabuse people of the idea that none of the candidates comes anywhere near the calibre of Nicola Sturgeon.

It’s been intriguing to see the brutal backlash to Kate Forbes’s honest admission about her socially conservative religious views, which for many colleagues killed off her campaign at birth.

It was also an eye-opener to witness the Skye MSP tear to shreds Humza Yousaf’s record in office, which will doubtless help fill many Conservative and Labour campaign leaflets.

There was the crassness of the SNP’s initial media hustings ban and its shameless deception over falling membership numbers, which triggered the resignation of its well-respected head of communications Murray Foote. If SNP HQ was willing to “lie” to him, then…

Also on Friday, Liz Lloyd, Ms Sturgeon’s “fixer,” unexpectedly announced her own departure. It came just hours after Ash Regan raised concerns with Scotland’s civil service chief about how she had been generously helping Mr Yousaf with his campaign.

A Regan camp insider said: “Why is Liz Lloyd being paid by the taxpayer to help Humza Yousaf, the party’s favourite candidate? It just adds to the pattern of behaviour at SNP HQ, which we have difficulty trusting."

Ms Lloyd took to social media to explain her exit would coincide with Ms Sturgeon’s, which, she claimed, had always been her intention. But the timing of her announcement, coming so quickly after those Regan concerns, will raise suspicions. What a coincidence!

 

Bizarreness

Through the short contest, we have also moved from the bizarreness of the ex-minister’s “independence readiness thermometer” to the troubling concerns that the ballot is being rigged in favour of the Establishment’s candidate, Mr Yousaf, with fears even expressed - really - that some votes might be cast by “dead” party members. You couldn’t make it up.

The Supreme Leader, as she sits in the departure lounge, must be privately aghast at what is unfolding. Last week, she tried to downplay the turbulence, saying: “Growing pains for any organisation can be painful but they are important and the party is going through a process.” Like purgatory perhaps.

However, Ms Sturgeon, who insisted she had complete confidence in the contest’s integrity, also warned her would-be successors not to trash her electoral legacy, reminding them the “task is to retain the trust of the Scottish people”.

Of course, for the SNP’s opponents, the battle for the Nationalist crown is the gift that keeps on giving. The spring-like joys of schadenfreude have broken out.

Ex-FM Alex Salmond, who for many years proudly led the SNP, just couldn’t resist temptation and chuckled into Twitter: “It takes decades to build a political party but days to destroy one.”

In the Commons, the trenchant Commons leader, Penny Mordaunt, was clearly enjoying herself over concerns about the leadership contest’s integrity, telling MPs: “If the candidates were called Moe, Larry and Curly (the American Vaudeville comedy act The Three Stooges), it couldn’t get any more slapstick,” she quipped, questioning whether any of them might “try to test the results in the courts”.

Her words might be prescient as the Regan camp is considering legal action to pause the contest. An insider whispered: “We have been speaking with our legal team. We are looking at all options.”

And yesterday as the anger over Mr Foote’s departure boiled away, metaphorical daggers began to point in the direction of Peter Murrell, the SNP Chief Executive and Ms Sturgeon’s other half.

HeraldScotland:
HeraldScotland:

Peter Murrell

 

A senior member of the party’s ruling NEC said: “We have the numbers. There’s not a hope in hell Peter can survive a no-confidence motion.”

And so it was, within hours of the threat, Mr M jumped before his colleagues had the chance to defenestrate him.

 

‘Bemused’

Cannily, Ms Forbes saw the crisis as an opportunity and, billing herself as the change candidate, wrote an open letter to SNP members, telling them, like her, they would be “hurt and bemused by the extraordinary turmoil” of the past week.

She declared: “If anyone was in any doubt that this needs to be a change election for the SNP, recent events and resignations confirm the core message of my campaign: continuity won’t cut it.” The continuity candidate being, of course, Mr Yousaf.

His opponents believe the playing field hasn’t been level from the start. One Regan camp source argued “it wasn't a smart move” by the FM to tell her Health Secretary about her decision to resign before informing the other candidates.

There have been claims of pro-Yousaf "serial hustings attendees" appearing at multiple party events.

The SNP hierarchy’s big fear is the STV system could mean that, while its man might secure the highest number of votes in the first ballot - short of an outright majority - the transfer of second preference votes from Ms Regan’s supporters to Ms Forbes, could see the Highland MSP seize the crown. So, the SNP Establishment is doing its damnest to ensure their man wins in the first round.

The grand irony is that Ms Sturgeon, who did so much to build up the SNP brand with a series of spectacular election victories, seems, by her unexpected departure, to have created a political earthquake, which is seriously damaging the party.

During the debates, all three candidates have confidently professed how Scotland’s independence could be achieved in just five years’ time. In the current circumstances, the words cloud, land and cuckoo spring to mind.

With the contest having just over a week to run, SNP chiefs will be hoping, praying nothing else untoward happens. Ms Forbes is due this morning to be interviewed by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg. Hold your breath.