This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

Fergus Ewing’s martyrdom has been deferred.  

The former SNP cabinet secretary is in the doghouse after voting with the Holyrood Tories, but he remains in his old party for now. 

Although SNP MSPs had their weekly meeting today, Mr Ewing wasn’t on the menu. Sorry, agenda.

Any suspension is now likely to be in a week or two, if not after the Rutherglen byelection on October 5 to avoid a fuss. It’s all getting messy.

That’s the thing about rebels, they put their parties in a tizz. 

Humza Yousaf said a few weeks back that he had had a very high tolerance for differences of opinion in his party apropos of Mr Ewing.

This week, the First Minister said his actions were a “very, very serious matter”.

It looks more and more like the party doesn’t know how to play Mr Ewing.

Besides being the son of the late nationalist icon Winnie Ewing, his ‘offence’ was one a lot of SNP members were sympathetic to.

In June, he backed a Tory motion declaring no confidence in the Green minister Lorna Slater over her handling / dropping of the failed deposit return scheme.

It was in keeping with Mr Ewing’s long-running disdain for the Greens (it’s mutual, by the way), who he sees as economically clueless and a drag on the SNP’s poll numbers.

If Mr Ewing is suspended, it will offend a good chunk of the SNP for all sorts of reasons.

In recent years, SNP HQ has relied on exile when dealing with internal problems.

However the MSPs and MPs involved had it coming.

Ministers Mark McDonald and Derek Mackay were exposed for sleaze, Natalie McGarry turned out to be a crook, and Margaret Ferrier was criminally reckless when she had Covid.

There were no noble motives involved, just lust, greed and stupidity. They were sent to Siberia to stop embarrassing the party having already humiliated themselves. 

They were never promising rebel material, but Mr Ewing is different.

For a good rebel you need an outsized personality, principles, a cause or two, a whiff of being the victim of an injustice, and a platform from which to rally others.

It’s not easy to pull off. Who remembers Change UK, for example? Anyone?

They used to be 11 MPs, eight from Labour and three from the Tories, who left their parties in early 2019. Luciana Berger, Anna Soubry, Chuka Umunna. Starting to sound familiar?

After 10 months campaigning for a second Brexit referendum, they lost their seats at the general election, knocked sideways by the high-energy arrival of Boris Johnson PM.

The Herald: Do you remember the 10 months of Change UK before the party dissolved?Do you remember the 10 months of Change UK before the party dissolved? (Image: Newsquest)
They were too drab, too monotone, too small in relation to the great debate of the day.

Mr Johnson’s victory, at least in England, shows they were out of step with the voters too.

Westminster has also had centuries of rebels coming and going, usually to ignominious ends. But it’s still a novelty at Holyrood. 

Many years ago, Margo MacDonald and Dennis Canavan were stitched up by the SNP and Labour respectively and got elected as defiant independents, but they remain stand-outs.

The rebel throne is empty if Mr Ewing is so inclined. Small wonder the SNP leadership keeps dithering about what to do in case he claims it. 

The party has just lost one MP, Angus MacNeil, in the Western Isles.

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A personality clash became a suspension, became a withering attack on the SNP’s lack of progress on independence, became an angry ‘I’m off then’.

Mr MacNeil now intends to stand at the general election, potentially helping Labour gain the seat by splitting the nationalist vote. 

If Mr Ewing is suspended and, like Mr MacNeil, chooses not to come back, he would have a host of issues to get his teeth into as a voice for the Highlands and rural Scotland. 

The Scottish Government’s abject failure to dual the A9, the short-term lets scheme, North Sea oil and gas jobs, and the Bute House Agreement between the SNP and Greens.

He would also have the remaining half of the parliament in which to do it.

If Mr Ewing is suspended, he won’t turn meek. More likely he becomes a rebel thorn in Mr Yousaf’s side, transmitting the discontent of SNP voters and members about the Government’s record and its junior partners. 

Yet if he is let off, Mr Yousaf will look weak, and an emboldened Mr Ewing may carry on regardless. The First Minister is in a hell of a bind. 

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