ONE of Nicola Sturgeon’s oldest pals is being lined up to replace her as SNP leader, a former Scottish Government adviser has claimed.

Alex Bell said there was a plan for former MP Angus Robertson to succeed the First Minister.

Mr Bell said Mr Robertson, a previous SNP deputy to Ms Sturgeon, had already benefitted from a shameless “party fix” to help him become an MSP next year at the expense of MP Joanna Cherry QC.

Ms Cherry dropped out the of the SNP candidate selection for the Edinburgh Central seat after a last-minute rule change making it far harder for MPs to switch to Holyrood.

Earlier this week she said her bid had been hobbled by “outside interference”.

Mr Bell suggested Ms Cherry’s bid was “sabotaged” to aid Mr Robertson and a longer-term succession plan, but had helped make the SNP look like “a knot of vipers” in the process.

Mr Bell, who was a special adviser to Alex Salmond when he was First Minister, makes the claims in his column in the Courier newspaper. 

Like Ms Cherry’s comments this week, he highlighted an interview that one of Ms Sturgeon’s other old friends gave to the Herald on Sunday.

Andrew Wilson, who authored the SNP’s pre-Covid economic blueprint for independence, had downplayed the fight between Ms Cherry and Mr Robertson in Edinburgh Central in the piece.

Calling the clash “over-stated”, he said: “Angus is one of my closest friends; Joanna Cherry is my MP. I respect them both. Two politicians fight over a seat and one loses - that story’s as old as politics.”

In response, Ms Cherry had accused him of taking people “for fools”, and insisted she had not simply fought and lost a fair fight.

Rather, “the selection rules were subject to an unprecedented change in a secret vote to hobble my candidacy”.

Mr Bell said: “Andrew Wilson, he of the SNP’s Growth Commission, addressed the nation through a newspaper last Sunday.

"Looking like an avuncular Tom Hanks, plump in his wing-back chair, he said we will be independent by 2026.

“He quickly got in a spat with Joanna Cherry, whose legitimate shot at contesting Edinburgh Central for the SNP was sabotaged by a party fix so crude it would have made Tammany Hall blush.

“Wilson’s defence of Angus Robertson, also bidding to stand in Edinburgh Central, is based on the plan that the former MP become the next party boss.

“Robertson has public admiration and career experience. He might make a good leader. However, it’s far from clear he’d win any contest.

“There is huge anger in the SNP at the cabal who ran the party for the last 20 years. 

“People like Wilson and Robertson have been in the inner circle, a place few ordinary members ever get access to. The rank and file are losing trust that the cabal knows best.

“In any election for party leader after Sturgeon, it is quite possible Robertson would lose. “Certainly the idea that HQ could engineer a result looks less credible now than at any time in the last two decades.”

Mr Bell added: “This row was part of one of many splits in the party. 

“The SNP has trashed the reputation of its old god, Alex Salmond, and is in the process of doing the same to his successor, Sturgeon. A party that once took pride in being tight-knit now looks like a knot of vipers.”

The SNP selection in Edinburgh Central has long been mired in claims of dirty tricks.

The seat was won by then Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson in 2016 by just 610 votes, and her move to the Lords next May has made the seat a prime SNP target.

Mr Robertson, who lost his Moray seat at Westminster to current Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross in 2017, applied for the candidacy, as did Ms Cherry.

With Mr Robertson so close to Ms Sturgeon, and Ms Cherry close to Alex Salmond, the contest became a proxy battle between the First Minister and her estranged predecessor.

In July, the SNP’s ruling national executive approved a last-minute rule change which forced any MP wanting to be an MSP to give up their Westminster seat if selected, putting their staff out of work with no guarantee of re-employment at Holyrood.

This obstacle to MPs also being MSPs, or having a ‘dual mandate’, was despite Mr Salmond being both an MP and MSP for seven of his 11 years at Holyrood while SNP leader.

Ms Cherry pulled out of the race complaining it was “particularly unreasonable” to put her staff out of work in the middle of a economic crash caused by the pandemic.

Mr Robertson’s main rival for the seat now is former Edinburgh Central MSP Marco Biagi.

Mr Biago today unveiled 50 backers from the local SNP branch, which he said appeared to be the “largest single group endorsement of this or any other contested SNP selection”.

The 50 include two current councillors, Alison Dickie and Denis Dixon, and 20 recent branch officeholders.

All have signed on to a joint declaration, which reads: “There are many excellent candidates in front of us but we ask that you re-select Marco Biagi, so we can unite, re-elect him and win an independence majority. He knows the constituency and is committed to it. 

“Vote Biagi - the best choice as constituency candidate."

Mr Biagi said: “Let there be no doubt now about who the party’s local volunteers want to be campaigning for in Edinburgh Central next May. This is an unprecedented intervention that should count for more than any number of endorsements from celebrities unconnected to the constituency or members who moved away decades ago.”

Apart from Argyle & Bute, where there is a delay, ballots are due to be issued electronically and by post in all SNP candidate selections tomorrow for return by November 6.

Mr Robertson has been asked for comment.