Did the SNP tear itself apart in the recent leadership contest?

On 15 February 2023, Nicola Sturgeon resigned as first minister of Scotland and SNP leader after 7 years in the position. Having been characterised by one leader for so long, it was inevitable that the leadership election would be a shift for the party, redefining its image for the foreseeable future. What was not inevitable, though, was just how divisive this election would be.

The leadership campaigns quickly descended into a debate over the already controversial gender recognition bill, introduced by Sturgeon in December of last year, and then subsequently blocked by the UK Government. The process of challenging the Section 35 intervention, in which the government argued that the bill would have an “adverse effect” on how Westminster laws apply, is still ongoing. As such, the stance of the next SNP leader was vital in determining whether or not the bill will continue to be fought for by the party.

However, this has led to a wider debate on LGBTQ+ issues among the leadership candidates. Kate Forbes, one of the three candidates that ran for leadership, recently caused controversy with comments that she would’ve voted against same-sex marriage “as a matter of conscience.” Forbes is a member of the Free Church of Scotland, an Evangelical and Calvinist denomination, which first emerged in 1843. Whilst she has said that she doesn’t necessarily follow every doctrine of her church, she makes her decisions “on the basis of what decision is right and wrong, according to my faith.” As the church holds many socially conservative views, such as on sex outside of marriage and abortion, speculation from more liberal SNP supporters has arisen as to whether these views would come to impact her policy decisions. For example, the campaign group Back Off Scotland, who fight for the right to harassment-free abortion, have voiced that Forbes as leader would be a “scary prospect.” This is a stark contrast to the recent work of the SNP under Sturgeon, and very out of step with the messaging of the gender recognition bill. From this, Forbes certainly emerges as a different identity of the SNP in contrast to present leadership. 

The other two candidates, Ash Reagan, and Humza Yousaf, also diverged on LGBTQ+ issues. Reagan has said she would not challenge the UK’s decision to block the Gender Recognition Act, and is known largely for her ministerial resignation over this legislation. Yousaf, on the other hand, has said that Scotland “must challenge” the Section 35 order.  His relationship with Sturgeon, whom he has worked with since he was a parliamentary assistant to his current position in cabinet, alongside similar political views, have led to him being deemed a continuity candidate. Even further, critics have suggested that he had insider knowledge of Sturgeon’s resignation and so had a head-start at campaigning. 

Accusations of connection to the former leadership are not favourable right now, with the arrest and continuing investigation into Peter Murrell, the former chief executive of the SNP and Sturgeon’s husband, and the SNP treasurer Colin Beattie. The police are investigating potential fundraising fraud, with money raised for the 2017 independence referendum possibly being used for other activities. Despite Yousaf’s neutral response of “a difficult time” and calls for  “transparency” under his leadership, it still cloaks his first days as leader with scandals of the past establishment; one that he was very much a part of. 

With this kind of diversity of opinion, financial scandal and in-fighting it is clear that the SNP does not know where it stands. Moreover, it demonstrates the breadth of the divide, from the socially conservative to socially liberal, and raises questions about how the party will define itself moving forward. Although primarily a party of independence, social issues like these can be fundamental in how individuals vote and define the agenda of government policy. If the bill is passed, it would be a landmark achievement for the transgender community and set an example of how LGBTQ+ legislation can be passed. Equally, if such a unique constitutional challenge by the UK government is ignored, the precedent it sets for Scottish-Westminster relations is highly significant.

Trying to find a compromise between such heavily contrasting views risks alienating both camps simultaneously. Yousaf’s offer of a demoted cabinet position to Forbes, and her decision to leave the Scottish government signals that harmony has not been found in the wake of the result. Volatile leadership elections are never good news for a party, as shown in the Conservative party leadership election last year. The chaos that has ensued surrounding Reagan’s claims that dead people’s votes may be used to influence the result and the criticism of the voting system itself is not a good look for the party, and its impact on their support is still uncertain. The arrests of former SNP politicians certainly does nothing to demonstrate strength, and with such a tight election result – Yousaf won by 4% of the vote – it is difficult to find strong foundations in the leader either. 

The consequences of this election are still yet to be realised truly, and the SNP still holds a unique position in Scottish politics. Not only do they have a legacy of being a winning party, their opposition is also divided among pro-union supporters. However, after so many years of relative stability under Sturgeon, and such a fraught election, it will likely be an uphill battle for Yousaf to regain some excitement about the party and move from his current defensive position.

Rishi Sunak Placates Eurosceptic Conservatives

In contrast to the rising tensions within the SNP, UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, seems to have done what many thought was an impossible task, unveiling a new post-Brexit Northern Ireland trade deal, which has gained the backing of key Eurosceptic figures in the Conservative Party. The new deal, entitled ‘The Windsor Framework’, has been introduced to replace the problematic ‘Northern Ireland Protocol’

The original protocol introduced a border in the Irish sea, as goods that travelled from England, Scotland, and Wales to Northern Ireland were checked at Northern Irish ports. This was to avoid the implementation of a land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which many thought would endanger the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ and reignite the ‘Troubles’ of the late twentieth century. Ireland remains in the EU, meaning there have to be checks on goods sent there from the UK, so these checks were done at Northern Irish ports to avoid any risk.

However, this did not sit well with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland or the European Research Group (ERG), a Eurosceptic faction of the Conservative party. Both of these groups were strong advocates for Brexit and so did not approve of Northern Ireland still effectively being governed by EU trade laws. As such, a key challenge for the last three Tory prime ministers has been finding a deal that would placate Eurosceptics, whilst not harming the Good Friday Agreement.

The ERG in particular are a force to be reckoned with for any leader of the Conservative party. They played a large role in the downfall of Theresa May, a clear example of their large influence. While they strongly supported Boris Johnson and Liz Truss during their respective premierships, their attitude to Rishi Sunak has been much more lukewarm. Indeed, one of his first acts as prime minister was to appoint Suella Braverman—a prominent member of the ERG, as Home Secretary—seemingly as a show of good faith towards them.

Sunak will have been fully aware that, to keep his party united, any deal revising the Northern Ireland Protocol required the ERG’s backing. It seems highly unlikely that they could survive a third rebellion and subsequent overthrow of their leader before the next general election.

Current polling suggests the Conservatives will almost certainly lose the next election and so to stand any chance of winning, or at the very least to minimise their defeat, keeping them united is a must for Sunak. It is a difficult task, but with the Windsor Framework he seems to have succeeded.

The Framework splits goods being sent across the Irish Sea into two lanes: a green lane and a red lane. The green lane is for goods bound for Northern Ireland, having minimal checks and paperwork. The red lane is for those bound for Ireland and so goods are subjected to EU procedure. 

While they have not declared complete satisfaction with the agreement, both the DUP and, more importantly for Sunak, the ERG have viewed the Windsor Framework as a significant step in the right direction, which they will consider voting for. Among them is Steve Baker, a particularly hard line Brexiteer who has vocally expressed his support for the deal. With MPs like Baker backing Sunak, the prime minister seems to have achieved his first big victory since taking office, avoiding the dangers of party division.

As ever in politics, however, Sunak is not wholly safe. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson is still causing trouble from the back benches, likely as an attempt to stage a political comeback. He has publicly stated that he is not yet sure whether or not he will support the new deal. It seems probable that he is waiting to see how the ERG responds, testing the water for a coup against Sunak. If the support for Johnson’s return is there, then he will doubtlessly rally his allies against Sunak, but for now the current prime minister appears to have bought himself more time.