MAY 2, 2003. Scottish Socialist Party leader Tommy Sheridan is sitting in the Glasgow Film Theatre, flanked by five comrades who had just been elected as MSPs. With Rosie Kane, Colin Fox, Rosemary Byrne, Frances Curran and Carolyn Leckie entering the Scottish parliament, the SSP can no longer be described as a one-man band. Much to the excitement of journalists, Kane has promised to bring "madness and craziness" to Holyrood.

And so it proved. They moaned about taking the oath. They got ejected for bad behaviour. They wore clothes that were straight out of a sixth-year disco. They criticised Labour MSPs for perpetuating poverty. They heckled, screeched and stomped. One even took time off for stress. The hard-left had entered Holyrood - and they wanted everybody to know it.

For a party formed fewer than four years previously, electing six MSPs was a major triumph. Sensing dissatisfaction with the rightward drift of Labour and the SNP, the SSP worked the Holyrood electoral system and reaped the rewards. A space had emerged in Scottish politics for a party that believed in nationalisation, universal benefits and progressive taxation, and the SSP rose to the challenge. High-profile campaigns on warrant sales, free school meals and the council tax won plaudits and attracted increased support. The rise of the Scottish Socialists was directly related to the fall of the Nats under John Swinney. The SSP were never likely to win the 2003 election, but they had the power to prevent others from doing so. "The feeling, " recalls Curran, "was that we'd been completely vindicated. We broke the mould. We certainly shocked the SNP."

Politics may be a team game, but the SSP had a star player: Tommy Sheridan.

Passionate, articulate and sharp-suited, the firebrand anti-poll tax campaigner from Pollok had became the party's sole MSP at the first Scottish parliament election in 1999, and was widely recognised as being among the chamber's best speakers. He also had an ability to attract people outside parliament to his causes, drawing them in by the force of his personality. He was like David Koresh without the guns.

His ferocity got on Labour nerves in the first term. Some ministers were unhappy that Sheridan could bark at them from a few feet away during debates. When the parliament flitted to Holyrood, he was moved to the back of the class. No longer could Labour MSPs feel Sheridan's breath as he bawled at them over their "sell-out" to New Labour, big business and the forces on international capitalism.

The SSP were also being held up as a model of socialist unity. Back in the 1980s, the Scottish left was split between three different communist outfits, as well as the Socialist Workers Party, Scottish Militant Labour and the International Marxist Group. There were, says SSP policy co-ordinator Alan McCombes, "divisions within divisions".

"The fragmentation of the left was a historical legacy, " he says. "In the first half of the 20th century, you had the Communist Party, the ILP [Independent Labour Party] and Trotskyist groups all working against each other.

It was something that had happened throughout Europe."

The success of Sheridan and McCombes, two of the founders of the SSP, was to unite most of the elements of the left under one party banner. In 1999, Scottish Militant Labour, the Republican Communist Network, the Socialist Movement, Liberation and others put aside their differences and joined forces, later joined by the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement (SRSM) and the SWP. The SSP's ability to heal the left was a precondition for the sensational result of 2003.

Fast forward to April 2005, where the SSP are chasing votes in the general election. Colin Fox, recently elected leader following the forced departure of Sheridan, is in Glasgow's Argyle Street dressed as Robin Hood. He's wearing a green jerkin and pants, with a bow and arrow dangling from the costume.

Onlookers are almost embarrassed by the spectacle. "What's desperate about it?" he asks, without irony. On May 6, Fox is left to wonder why his party have polled just 1.9per cent of the vote.

But Fox shouldn't be made the fallguy for the SSP's poor election, a result that was the net effect of months of internal bickering. This shift, say SSP insiders, can be attributed to the realisation that Sheridan was less of a hero than many of his colleagues had believed. The glow of the party's early successes had been replaced by the poisonous fog of personality clashes.

The many grievances - over collective responsibility, group resources and, especially, Sheridan's belief that he was invincible - came to a head at an explosive meeting of the SSP executive in Glasgow last November. It was there that the ruling body, co-chaired by Leckie and Edinburgh activist Catriona Grant, forced their frontman to quit.

Their reasoning was simple. Following a number of "issues" that had been swirling around Sheridan's personal life, SSP bosses were worried that their leader's handling of the rumours was leading the party towards oblivion. As a face-saving exercise, the Glasgow MSP was given three options. One, say nothing to the press. Two, give an interview to a sympathetic newspaper about the gossip. Three, hold a press conference about the "issues". Sheridan's unwillingness to agree to any of these options forced the committee to call, unanimously, on their leader to stand down.

This decision, and the subsequent spinning, has propelled the party down the road to ruin. Until the truth of his departure was revealed, Sheridan used the week of his "resignation" to do a tour of the TV studios, where he said he was quitting to spend more time with his pregnant wife, Gail. Fatherhood, he said, wasn't compatible with leadership. His tributes to himself coincided with suggestions that his exit had been the devil's work of Kane, Leckie and Curran who, consumed by jealousy, had forced him out. All of this was nonsense. As one member put it: "The stuff about it being a plot by the women is unadulterated claptrap. We weren't going to let Tommy take us all down.

There is loyalty and there is stupidity."

Group warfare spilled out into the public domain at a press conference the following week. Ostensibly held as a way of showing that the SSP were still united, the McCombes-led meeting was a disaster. Instead of asking questions about the party's future, journalists focused on News Of The World accusations that Sheridan had cheated on his wife with a party worker. Asked if they backed him over his libel action against Rupert Murdoch's paper, Sheridan's comrades refused to do so. His fellow MSPs had hung him out to dry.

The soap opera continued for weeks.

Asked by activists in Dundee why the SSP weren't backing Sheridan over the lawsuit, McCombes said he didn't want to help his comrade build a "tower of lies". Sheridan was also quoted as saying that "black arts" were being used to undermine him.

The subsequent leadership election, which pitted McCombes against the Lothians MSP, Fox, proved to be another chapter in SSP self-destruction. One half of the parliamentary group - Leckie and co - backed McCombes, while Byrne and Sheridan threw their weight behind their MSP colleague. In a dig at Fox, Curran said McCombes had her vote because he was "a leader, not a follower". Fox hit back by dismissing the three women as "followers of Alan" and claimed McCombes was too "aloof" to be leader. Around the same time, Kane said that Sheridan had apologised for calling her a "witch". It was all getting silly.

Sheridan's departure was also hanging around the contest like a stinkbomb in a lift. Fox urged his female colleagues to "get over" their problems with Sheridan, expressed regret that his friend was no longer leader and said the Glasgow MSP should have been treated "a bit more respectfully". Asked if she agreed with Fox, Curran replied: "Respect has to be earned."

Having defeated McCombes, Fox took his party's disunity into May's election and bombed. Fielding candidates in every constituency, the SSP polled a derisory 1.9per cent and won 43,514 votes. Not even the excuse of fighting a first-past-the-post election could explain such a woeful result. In 2001, Sheridan had fought the same election and nearly polled twice the number of votes.

Quoting ex-Manchester United manager Tommy Docherty, Fox said of the performance: "We got beat four nil and we were lucky to get nil."

Humiliation has not, however, prompted the SSP to heal their wounds.

At a recent meeting of the G8 Alternatives committee, eyebrows were raised in certain sections of the SSP when Sheridan was nominated as one of the speakers. In the parliamentary chamber, the axed leader is more likely to praise free-market capitalism than he is to sit next to some of his colleagues.

HUGH Kerr, the party's former press officer, said recently that he believes the SSP need to stop tearing themselves apart:

"That includes an end to the sectarian behaviour [or factionalism] that some comrades have been engaged in in recent years - ironically, as far as I can see, not based on any substantial political differences but on ambition, envy and malice."

Another worry for Fox is the balancing act of keeping the headbangers happy. As an example, the Socialist Workers' Party - anti-nationalist but pro-Sheridan - dislike the SSP independence policy and are not hugely enamoured of the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement. The SRSM, who have web-links to Irish terror groups, hate the "Brit" elements of the party and want separatism to become non-negotiable. SSP bosses are also scared that George Galloway - whose Respect party has links to the SWP - will stand in the 2007 Holyrood elections and destroy the SSP.

Linked to the party's decline is their paranoia. Senior SSP figures recently closed down an internal e-mail forum after becoming convinced that a mole was passing confidential postings to another leftwing group. One member even argues that Weekly Worker, a publication linked to the Communist Party of Great Britain, is passing documents to the Sunday Herald as a way of, wait for it, propping up an ailing British state.

Kerr's solution to this crisis is to bring back Sheridan. According to this logic, only Sheridan can stop the rot. "It seems clear to me and I suspect many other members that we need Tommy back as convener as soon as possible and preferably by next year in the run-up to the 2007 parliament and council elections, " he says.

This seems unlikely for two reasons.

Firstly, even some of Sheridan's own supporters are surprised by the causes he is now embracing. In the past six months, the one-time socialist champion has said nice things about Fathers 4 Justice and opposed the extradition to Texas of Enron bankers, as well as backing mandatory jail sentences for those carrying knives: some of which seems closer to the views of Tory peer Lord Tebbit than of a working-class hero.

Moreover, some of Sheridan's colleagues on the party executive would sooner jump off North Bridge than tolerate a second coming. The crucial minutes of the November meeting that ended his reign may be guarded by padlocks, but that could change if he were ever to regain an interest in the leadership.

This, in the end, is the SSP's dilemma.

Sheridan is one of the few politicians on the left with a track record of connecting with large parts of the electorate, yet senior SSP figures rule out his return because they rightly fear that a fresh focus on his departure could destroy the party.

The comrades have swapped fighting capitalism for in-fighting.

Is there a future for the SSP? The answer depends on their performance at the next election. A small dip in support could see their parliamentary group cut in half - or worse. If Alex Salmond can rejuvenate the SNP, Sheridan might once again find himself isolated at Holyrood: the solitary keeper of the socialist flame.