The first rule of Scottish politics is: the SNP always wins, even when it loses. If you’re wondering why the Nationalists were so swift to remove the whip from Margaret Ferrier — once the story that she had travelled on a train after testing positive for Covid became public, that is — be under no illusion that ethical consideration had much to do with it. Nicola Sturgeon’s party are keen on a by-election in Ferrier’s Rutherglen and Hamilton West constituency because they think they can win and put this matter behind them. Doing so is of the utmost strategic importance to the separatists because Scotland is seven months out from Holyrood elections and Covid-19 will be one of the main issues.
Contrary to all objective metrics, Sturgeon is seen as having had a good pandemic, in part because she doesn’t face the same degree and volume of scrutiny as the Prime Minister does and, in part, because she’s a first-rate political communicator. The key message she wants to communicate from now until polling day is that of Sensible Nicola vs. Reckless Boris. Ferrier remaining in situ, even with the whip withdrawn, undermines that talking point in a way that hard facts seemingly can’t.
That the Nationalists are so confident of holding Rutherglen is an indication of the doldrums in which Scottish Labour finds itself. As recently as 2010, Labour was taking more than 60 per cent of the vote and in 2017 the party’s Ged Killen narrowly wrested the seat from Ferrier, losing it back to her in last year’s election. Holyrood Labour leader Richard Leonard is owed much of the blame; after almost thee years in the job, he has failed to make any impact.
Even so, the SNP is not about to give him an opening, nor will they allow the Scottish Tories a weak spot to pummel. Get Ferrier out, another NatBot in, and we can go back to cooing over how shiny Nicola’s halo is. The problem with operating a personality cult in place of a political party is that you inevitably attract the sort of wit more suited to the plastic folding pews of a tent ministry than the benches of Parliament. The SNP leadership is aware of the serious talent deficit in its Westminster and Holyrood groups but it has been content to have pliable and obedient lobby fodder instead of more independent minds.
When Sturgeon refused to rule out quarantining people travelling to Scotland from England, I thought it was because she understands her grassroots. Maybe it was because she understands her MPs.