Why Guido was wrong about Gordon

Today, I am mostly blogging elsewhere – at the wonderful Bella Caledonia actually. It’s a big, thoughtful (well I think so!) piece on how twelve years of devolution have failed children but that by investing in early years, we can create a better future for them. 

Feel free to take your coffee and wander over there for a read.  And have a good look at everything else on offer:  these folks are the kind of thinkers and articulates I want to be when I grow up.

So over there you get meaty, here you get gossipy….

Forgive me, for inflicting Guido Fawkes on you, but this has annoyed me for a week.  He dropped one of his little bombs that Gordon Brown’s resignation as an MP was imminent – posted on 4 April, later that week apparently – and that he would be going to the Lords, which would allow the by-election to be held on 5 May.  McTwitter rebounded the rumour, prompting the haloed Sarah to tweet furiously that it was rot.

As anyone with an inkling of knowledge about Scottish politics would know.  Guido might know his Westminster onions, but this was mince.

Why won’t it happen this side of 5 May?

  • because Gordon wouldn’t do anything to derail Scottish Labour’s campaign, or draw publicity and attention from it
  • because Labour has no reason to want to bury such a by-election – it would be a shoo-in for Labour surely, allowing Ed a big campaign to cut his teeth on
  • who runs campaigns in Scotland?  John Park.  And where is he right now?  Running the Scottish election campaign.
  • and it is he who is widely rumoured to be Gordon Brown’s handpicked successor – not much chance of him being a by-election candidate at the moment really

It doesn’t matter how disengaged Gordon is from humdrum politics these days, nor even if he and Iain Gray have so much as exchanged Christmas cards in recent months:  the ties that bind are the strongest.  Not just in Labour but the other parties too – would any of the SNP MPs choose this moment to resign their seats, even if the need was urgent?  No.

Gordon won’t resign before 5 May because he cares about Labour, and Scottish Labour, too much.   And he wants to see them back in power at Holyrood. 

Though that begs the question, why haven’t we seen him on the campaign trail yet?  Surely, Labour is going to bring its big guns into play at some point?

Stevenson’s resignation hurts Salmond more than it damages the SNP

Okay, so I lambasted Stewart Stevenson’s performance on Newsnight Scotland last Monday night, and now I’m feeling a tad guilty.  But actually, I thought he came out the next day saying all the right things and – crucially – back in touch with his brief and the situation.  If you’ll pardon the pun, I reckoned he had done more than enough to weather the storm.

So his resignation yesterday was unexpected but not inconsistent with the measure of the man.  As Will Patterson points out in his excellent blogpost, previous Labour Ministers had been guilty of much more heinous crimes and no resignations followed.  But Stewart Stevenson is an honourable man.  He sensed he had become the story, that the opposition parties would not let up, and for the good of the SNP Government and the independence cause, he had to fall on his sword.  He took responsibility for the seriousness of the situation and for that, Stewart Stevenson deserves huge plaudits.

Joan McAlpine is right to promote the opportunity for the SNP to bring a woman into the Cabinet and I’d agree that Shirley-Anne Somerville is a very likely contender. Though perhaps not for the transport brief, even though she has been its parliamentary liaison member in recent years.  To coin a phrase, this is no time for a novice and Salmond might prefer to switch Roseanna Cunningham sideways into this Ministerial portfolio and promote Ms Somerville to environment instead.  She would be a great asset to the team whichever berth she occupies.

But there is a much more interesting consequence of Stewart Stevenson’s resignation and it flows from his very personal connection to the First Minister.  Eddie Barnes touches on it in his article in today’s Scotland on Sunday and it is also evident in the tone of the First Minister’s response to Stevenson’s resignation letter. 

Stewart Stevenson is probably Alex Salmond’s closest ally and personal friend in the party.  They have been together through thick and thin for over 30 years, Salmond in the foreground, Stevenson a few steps behind, willing and able to serve in whatever capacity his friend, and his party, needed most.  This resignation – above possibly any other – hurts Salmond more than it damages the SNP.

Stevenson was always a weak link, for a number of reasons.  His closeness to Salmond and the huge personal debt owed – as the anonymous source in Eddie Barnes’ piece indicates – has oft been cited by mischief makers as the reason for his promotion, first to the seat of Banff and Buchan and then into government.  Stevenson has never been one of the party’s darlings but the doubting of the man’s talents is way off the mark.  No, he is not a natural politician but he is clever, knowledgeable, diligent and above all, loyal.   On certain parts of his brief, he has been a real success. 

But not all.  The failure of Transport Scotland on key and local infrastructure projects and issues has caused real problems for many backbench MSPs on wafer thin majorities.  Appeals to the Minister went unheeded.  People felt his hands off approach to such a key strategic body was wrong and it caused many to diss him – pretty openly – to all and sundry.  As the burd has already pointed out, it was his portfolio and the skewering of Transport Scotland by the Parliament’s Audit Committee that presented Hugh Henry with a chance to shine in the media and public eye.  Stevenson all but delivered two important political prizes into Henry’s lap.  Not good. 

What this means is that in crucial weeks like this, Stewart Stevenson had few allies in the wider parliamentary group or party to rely on.  Yet, had Weathergate happened last year, Stevenson would not have gone, no matter how loudly the opposition parties brayed.  Because he enjoyed the total support of the First Minister. 

Salmond’s grip on his party has not just been iron, it has been steely.  Such has been the extent of loyalty and trust commanded and demanded, that very few would have countenanced even idle gossip about such an option.  Yet this weekend, Salmond must have tested the temperature of his party and realised that Stevenson had to be allowed to resign. 

It hints at a chink, if no more than that, in Salmond’s hold on the imaginations and in the affections of the SNP.   Most members would realise that the loss of his transport Minister would represent a very heavy personal blow.  It would also signal the piercing of the leader’s political infallibility and impregnability.

The fact that the First Minister accepted Stewart Stevenson’s resignation suggests that the party’s relationship with its leader has shifted in recent months.  How interesting.