A SENSE of unrest within the SNP ranks at Westminster looks set to continue despite Ian Blackford seeing off a challenge to his position as leader of the party in the Commons.

Mr Blackford, who has led the group since 2017, survived a potential move against him from his colleague Stephen Flynn, the MP for Aberdeen South, on Thursday after senior party figures stepped in to quell a planned uprising. 

The Herald on Sunday was told the matter of a possible challenge by Mr Flynn was put down on the agenda for a meeting of the SNP's National Executive Committee yesterday and when the item was seen by the leadership a decision was made to intervene.  

“Nicola [Sturgeon] didn't contact Stephen but someone else did to ask him to reconsider,” one insider told this paper.

Mr Flynn did not respond to The Herald on Sunday's request for an interview.

Yet while the coup was averted, unhappiness among some members of the group looks likely to continue and had been brewing for some time.

The development comes as the SNP prepares for the Supreme Court to deliver its judgment on Wednesday over whether Holyrood can hold an independence referendum without the consent of the UK Government.

If the court decides in the Scottish Government’s favour, a second independence referendum is due to take place on October 19 next year.

HeraldScotland:

Stephen Flynn, pictured second from right holding a banner, at an independence rally in Glasgow in January 2022. Photo Colin Mearns

Should the judgement go against, then First Minister said she would use the next General Election as a “de facto” independence referendum.

The Westminster SNP leader faced increased scrutiny in recent months following criticism of his handling of sexual harassment allegations against former party chief whip Patrick Grady.

Mr Grady, who now sits as an independent MP, was suspended from the Commons for two days in July after an independent investigation found he had acted inappropriately towards an SNP staffer in 2016.

Concerns over Mr Blackford's handling of the situation intensified after an audio recording of a group SNP meeting was leaked in which Mr Blackford could be heard saying he was “very much looking forward to welcoming Patrick back into the group next week”, and encouraging fellow MPs to offer “as much support as possible”.

He later apologised and announced that an external review of support available to staff would be carried out.

But concerns among some persist over his management style, his strategy in the Commons, and even an apparent cosiness with the Westminster establishment.

READ MORE: Scottish independence: Court date next week for referendum case ruling

One senior figure said he had heard rumours in the summer that there might be a challenge.

“We were looking for a change in tactics and strategy and I think that was the reason behind any discussions that were taking place – as far as I know but they didn’t go that far,” he said.

“There’s always going to be some speculation around.

“We have our AGM in December and there is always an opportunity for anybody to stand for key positions within the group.

“It depends how the Supreme Court decision goes on Wednesday but we could be in a position where we have less than a year to prosecute a referendum campaign so it may be it was there to add a bit of a focus onto that.”

‘Refocus message’
THE insider added that there were also discussions about how SNP MPs spent their time at Westminster.

“I think the idea would be to spend not as much time going through some of the motions we do go through at Westminster and refocus on the independence message and make sure we are game ready for a referendum,” said the source.

“We get pulled into some committees which are procedural and some of us felt it would be more beneficial if we were spending more time on our core objective which is the referendum and winning that.”

The figure said that as far as he was aware there was no “great mood to side-change” Mr Blackford and he had heard “no whispers” of anybody else considering coming forward since Thursday when Mr Flynn announced he was not standing.

Another SNP source said: “Some people feel Ian doesn’t create a collegiate group. For instance, there was irritation about how the most recent opposition day debate was conducted.

"It was on Scottish independence and the economy. It was sprung on the group by the executive without prior discussion. 

“Quite a number were fed up about the choice of topic, the way it was presented and how the debate went. They felt is was too broad-ranging and lacked a sharp focus. For instance, it could have been around the question is the Union between Scotland and England consensual.” 

In August, Mr Blackford spoke of his “love” of Westminster life and friendships with Unionists which did not go well among some in his party.

The insider went on: “There’s also some irritation that he is too clubbable with the Tories.” 

On the handling of Mr Grady the source said there was concern in the group that the issue had been allowed to drag on. 

"It was emblematic of how things are done," said the figure.

However, despite the discussions surrounding Mr Blackford, the MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, no other contenders for the position of leader have emerged.

Any SNP MP can put themselves forward for the role of leader and deputy leader at the group’s annual general meeting. The group’s next AGM is due to be held next month. Mr Blackford has said he intends to put himself forward again.

Meanwhile, the SNP are preparing for the Supreme Court’s decision on Wednesday morning.

Judgment day

TWO senior figures told The Herald on Sunday that the judgment could be of benefit to the party whichever way it goes.

“Either way it can be used as a win for us. If democracy is denied, that can act as a spur for others, not necessarily in our party or who are independence supporters, to say that’s not right. There is a mandate there to have a referendum and people should be given the choice,” said one.

A second added: “If the court comes back and says ‘no’, those who support the Union may regard this as a win but in actual fact it changes the nature of the Union.

"They will be saying ‘you must have permission [for a referendum] from the Prime Minister and if the Prime Minister refuses, it is not a voluntary union any more’.

“I do think the [pro-Union] side haven't thought through what the ramifications of that are for them.

"We don’t know what option [the court] will come up with with. They could just say no, it’s reserved, you must get the agreement of the Prime Minister, or they could say it’s an unwritten constitution and you need to respect democracy. The union was entered into by Scotland and England voluntarily.

“But it takes it out of being a legal process and moves it back on to being a political process.”

Mr Flynn, who is the party’s energy spokesman at Westminster, denied in June that he was interested in the role as leader as pressure mounted on Mr Blackford over how he handled Mr Grady after he was found by Commons authorities to have sexually harassed a young member of staff. 

Back in March, Mr Blackford was forced to deny there was a plot to oust him. He denied reports, published by Politico Europe, that he could resign from his post ahead of May’s council elections.

He dismissed the claims he was standing down and insisted he was focused on helping to push for independence.

The party Westminster chief was backed up by SNP defence spokesperson Stewart McDonald who said the claims had been “made up” by “people with too much time on their hands”.

According to Politico, Mr Blackford had clashed with colleagues in the Commons, and there were grumblings from others about his performance. However, the SNP veteran said the claims were “utter nonsense”. 

Mr Blackford told BBC Scotland that it was “like silly season has arrived early. There’s nothing in it.”
He added: “I’m back here in my constituency going down to Fort William to see people. I’ll be getting on with that job and getting on with the job of leading the SNP at Westminster. It’s a big job to do.”

‘Strong team’
ASKED what his relationship was like with his colleagues in Westminster, Mr Blackford said: “I have a good team, a strong team – we are getting on with the job. I’ll be doing that safe in the knowledge that I have a group that’s behind me and a government in Edinburgh that we work closely with.

“Let’s focus on the day job of holding the government to account, dealing with the crisis in Ukraine and delivering the Scottish Government’s manifesto commitments.” 

The article also claimed senior MPs Alyn Smith and Stewart McDonald may be looking to take over. Both men dismissed the story when approached by The Herald. Mr McDonald said Politico’s piece was “literally made up”.

SNP insiders told The Telegraph on Friday that last week’s coup had been “killed” and was “done and dusted”, and it was expected that Mr Blackford will remain in post until the next General Election.

They said that Mr Flynn is a talented politician and his democratic right to challenge Mr Blackford was recognised, but argued that the timing was wrong.

Meanwhile, more than 5,000 people have registered to take part in a pro-independence rally outside Holyrood late on Wednesday afternoon after the Supreme Court has delivered its judgment that morning.

It is one of 10 rallies being organised across the country by the campaign group “Time for Scotland” to respond to the court decision. The event outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh is due to start at 5.15pm.