The Showdown in the New Town

Let’s get ready to rumble.

In the blue corner is Angus Robertson, former Westminster leader of the SNP, and candidate for his party’s nomination in Edinburgh Central. In the red corner, Joanna Cherry, MP for Edinburgh South West and, as of Saturday evening, also a contender in Edinburgh Central.

This is no ordinary selection battle. For the SNP, it’s the equivalent of Ali vs. Foreman: the Showdown in the New Town.

Edinburgh Central is a temperamental seat, ditching Labour for the SNP and then the SNP for the Tories in the past decade. The incumbent, Ruth Davidson, won narrowly in 2016 but on current polling trends the constituency will likely return to the Nationalist fold next year. It’s a mostly affluent seat, voted No then Remain, and is centrally located — ideal for someone with their eye on the SNP leadership and keen to prove they can appeal to Unionist Edinburgh.

Robertson and Cherry are both spoken of as potential successors (or challengers) to Nicola Sturgeon. Each would deny any such ambitions — they always do — but the First Minister is already five years in the job and the Nationalists are no closer to achieving independence.

Last week, the BBC’s Nick Eardley reported on behind-the-scenes frustrations with Sturgeon, revealing that some party figures think the leader ‘might be in trouble – and might have to stand down in the summer’. Eardley added that ‘some are urging the leadership to think about a contingency plan to replace Ms Sturgeon with a like-minded figure if she has to quit’.

Eardley was subjected to a torrent of insults and invective on social media for his report but what was not forthcoming was a convincing rebuttal. The SNP grassroots demand another referendum. Their leader can’t deliver one. Something will have to give.

That is why the selection for Edinburgh Central could be a hinge-moment in the history of the SNP and devolution. Robertson and Cherry represent starkly different positions on the Nationalist continuum. He is the establishment candidate, continuity Sturgeon, the desired outcome of moderates who believe the party must bide its time until there is a government at Westminster willing to permit another vote on Scexit.

Cherry is the embodiment of the grassroots, politically aligned with Alex Salmond, and eager to test the legal waters on holding a plebiscite without Downing Street’s approval. A senior source from the moderate wing characterised the face-off as ‘Robertson fighting for the heart of the party and Joanna fighting for the heart of the zoomers’.

Whomever wins Edinburgh Central — the selection then, presumably, the seat — would not become just another MSP. The victor would be seen as next-in-line for the Nationalist crown, either inheriting it when Sturgeon chooses to resign, or taking it from her in a leadership challenge. As such the winner will shape the future of the SNP and the country (and claim the even grander honour of being my MSP).

Cherry’s statement entering the contest all but confirms this. ‘We must have the right to choose our own future and we need a strategy to get us to that point of decision,’ she said. ‘Scotland will be completely ignored at Westminster, the movement for Scotland to be an independent European nation can only be realised from Holyrood,’ she continued.

Finally: ‘SNP MPs at Westminster have never been there to settle down; I am for settling up.’ Statements like these are usually typed; Cherry opted to write hers with a flame-thrower.

As well as two independence strategies, two personalities will be on offer to SNP members. Robertson is a team-builder and consensus-finder; he’s personable with a light and easy charm. Cherry’s style is more abrasive and more certain. An insider describes her as ‘extreme and pompous’, but the extreme have been doing quite well in politics lately, and as for pompous, it’s hardly fair to hold her law degree against her. Cherry rubs some the wrong way but she’s also politically fiercer and more intellectually daring than her rival. Robertson would go down better at the Stockbridge Sunday market, Cherry at the Edinburgh Uni debates union.

Conventional wisdom marks Robertson as the favourite. He has leadership experience, more years of service, and is the institutional choice. However, that could hurt as well as help him. Aware that they may be choosing a new leader as well as a parliamentary candidate, the selectorate of Edinburgh Central will have to decide between a Sturgeon successor and a clean break with a leadership that has failed to deliver on its promises.

Even so, Cherry’s path will not be a smooth one. While she says she would stand down from Westminster if she became an MSP, she intends to remain an MP while campaigning for Edinburgh Central. Robertson jabs that the party needs a ‘full-time candidate’. (When will he be resigning as managing director of his pro-independence private company Progress Scotland, one wonders.) A radical feminist, she has also raised concerns about the Scottish Government’s rush to change the rules on ‘gender identity’, namely removing the need for medical evidence before someone born male is legally recognised as a woman, or vice versa.

Her criticisms have been met with ugly, personal rhetoric from some trans activists and their supporters inside the SNP. She can expect her nomination to be opposed vigorously — and viciously — by this faction but her refusal to back down to intimidation has impressed the growing number of party members fed up with gender-related bullying and the hierarchy’s failure to rein in the culprits.

That a selection contest in a Tory-held seat 14 months out from Holyrood elections is being spoken of as a proxy leadership race is a hallmark of these uncanny political times. On paper, Nicola Sturgeon’s position could not be more secure. She won a landslide of Scottish seats in the General Election and polls put her on course for a very good result next May. The opposition is divided and not terribly effective; her government is dogged by failings on health and education but they seem to have no impact on voting intentions.

Yet, appearing on Andrew Marr yesterday, Sturgeon was forced to say she intended to fight the next election and stay on as leader. Intend she might; whether she will is another matter. There’s a mood skulking in the corridors and cafes of Holyrood: no one can say when Sturgeon will go but everyone expects it.

No matter how many election victories she records, an SNP leader who can’t deliver independence is a failure on her own terms. The party will look to Edinburgh Central’s eventual MSP for a way out of this constitutional limbo. Expect this selection contest to be a bare-knuckle affair. Whoever wins will become the most powerful parliamentary candidate in the history of the SNP.

*****

Bruce Crawford’s decision to stand down at the next election will mean a keen loss for Holyrood. The Stirling MSP was one of the original 129 elected in 1999 and went on to serve in the Cabinet as chief whip and is currently chair of the finance and constitution committee.

His opponents speak highly of him: not only is he friendly and courteous to a fault, he’s also a thoughtful man who puts in a shift. I reckon the Scottish Parliament will most miss his spirit of public service. Make no mistake, Crawford is a true-believing Nationalist, but he has never allowed his tribal loyalties to cloud his judgement.

At a time when so many backbench MSPs seem content to be an echo, he has been a voice — asking tough questions of ministers and even getting the occasional answer.

Crawford, 65, says he wants to spend more time with his grandchildren. After such a long and creditable career of public service, he’s more than earned it.

*****

Jeremy Corbyn — I’d forgotten all about him — popped up last week to say he would consider a Shadow Cabinet post if sounded out by his successor. Given his part in the biggest Tory election victory since 1987, surely he deserves a job in the actual Cabinet?

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk.

Published by stephenjdaisley

Political journalist and commentator.

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