Has John Swinney just handed Holyrood to Labour?

by | 23 May 2024

In a decision which defies logic, the First Minister just decided to come out swinging against moderate sanctions against an MSP who broke some serious rules. The implications of this are far-reaching.

I’m hammering away at two separate deadlines when a press release from Scottish Labour about FMQs pops in. It is about some sort of scandalous outrage or other, but it doesn’t actually say what it was. I wondered if this was just hyperbole. Then an alert from the Herald pops up and tells me that John Swinney is refusing to countenance any sanctions on Michael Matheson.

When I’m writing I try very hard to keep a peg on my own hyperbole. We all tend to exaggerate when we speak because in spoken language it adds emphasis, but if you write it down it starts to sound unserious and so it is best avoided. But there are hyperbolic phrases that get used in politics in a way that is accepted as not literal – like when someone says ‘I don’t believe it!’ or ‘that’s mad!’.

Generally you actually can believe it and generally it may be daft or ill-judged but it’s not actually something that would raise the eyebrow of a clinical psychologist. So when I write here that the events of the first paragraph left me in a state where I literally didn’t believe it I’m being literal.

I had to triple-check three media outlets in case someone at the Herald had lost it. When I could no longer not believe it, I genuinely wondered if the SNP is having a mental breakdown. It is risking everything to defend a man who took money he shouldn’t have and then lied about it.

So let me just put this as bluntly as I can – even Humza Yousaf wasn’t this devoid of savvy, wasn’t this disconnected to the real world, wasn’t this lacking in self awareness. There is a very real likelihood that John Swinney just cost the SNP the Holyrood election. The SNP MP group is well aware he’s probably guaranteed some kind of wipeout.

I probably don’t need to explain this to you but I will anyway. During an election campaign you have a fairly simple task; you probably can’t effectively create new narratives about yourself because those take time to come through. That means your presentational task is well defined.

Basically if you’re an incumbent or a challenger which has been around for a while, the public will already have views about you. There will be positive views and negative views. You’re not going to change them or create new ones in a six-week campaign, so you must have a laser-focus on reinforcing the positive views and avoiding anything that reinforces the negative views.

So where are we on positives and negatives for the SNP? Well, the positives barely count if you’re going to put up a giant neon sign advertising your negatives, and that’s what they just did. Because their negatives are heavily clustered.

Since the Swinney coup, given that I don’t have access to the kind of money that buys you proper public attitude research and Scotland doesn’t do that work much, I’ve been having to assess the situation by piecing together what I can. One of the ways I do this is to run my own, miniature public attitude research. I have been asking an awful lot of people unloaded questions to see how they feel about things and then just listened.

For Swinney to stand up and say that it is outrageous for Matheson to face formal consequences based on some perceived procedural loophole is outside the realms of my comprehension

Sometimes you need to do some work to piece together what you’re hearing. Not this time. Everyone said something similar. ‘I’m sick of the lot of them. They’re in it for themselves. They don’t even pretend to care about me any more, they just do what they want.’

Sometimes this is ‘a pox on all their houses’, sometimes its directed specifically at the SNP – but it never, ever doesn’t include the SNP. Many people feel tricked or betrayed. The sense of the SNP acting as a politbureau that decides what it is going to do only and always in its own interests pervades.

I wrote two weeks ago that, tentatively, I thought the commentator class had called it wrong again over the Swinney succession. As I said, political commentators fetishise process and admire nothing more than an elegant assassination. The almost universal view seemed to be that, in avoiding a leadership election, the SNP had pulled a masterstroke.

Of course it turns out that if the SNP had had a contest it would have been in the middle of it now and so leaderless in an election campaign. But that’s because one clique decided to remove the previous leader over petty internal animosities.

But whatever the situation, it has deprived the party of the chance to give any impression that it gets that it needs to change and is even partly minded to seek a fresh start.

Still, if a leadership stitch-up made people feel like the SNP had little interest in them, it is peanuts compared to what Swinney has done today. I don’t need to guess here, the opinion polls were overwhelming – even a strong majority of SNP voters think the party had already crossed a line in the Matheson business. It is to the SNP what Covid garden parties were to Boris Johnstone.

So for Swinney to stand up and say that it is outrageous for Matheson to face formal consequences based on some perceived procedural loophole is outside the realms of my comprehension. They’re going to lose the vote anyway and Matheson will be suspended. What is to gain?

The SNP is in an existential battle with reality, and reality is winning hands down

I’ve been scratching my head all afternoon. What do they think they’re getting out of this? I can come up with no feasible answer. Any of the rest of us putting in an unjustifiable expenses claim for £11k, wangling the payment and then lying about it would be summarily dismissed. Claiming he’s hard-done-by strains at the boundaries of sanity.

I know this, you know this, I’m told reliably the SNP MP group knows this. I fear Swinney probably just guaranteed a General Election rout. The problem is, coming back from a setback in time for Holyrood was very possible, but after a rout?

The SNP is about to lose something like three quarters of its MPs and therefore nearly a third of its income. There are rumours about SNP insolvency kicking around in senior SNP circles just now, never mind with a massive extra loss of income. Plus I keep getting copied into emails of people resigning from the SNP post-leadership stitch-up.

This could verge into the ‘existential’ category for the party. One or two things go sideways for them in Branchform or the perjury inquiry/Salmond judicial review and this crisis becomes all-consuming.

I thought it was now impossible for Swinney to have to go before Holyrood but I don’t think that this evening. I told you I didn’t think Swinney is the safe pair of hands you think he is and that has been ably demonstrated. I thought the SNP would close the gap with Labour in this election and probably shore up the vote before 2026, but I’m doubtful about that now.

When I last wrote about Matheson I said that people blaming him for the mess this has made were wide of the mark. This is all down to the SPADs and the media team. I’ve told you that lot couldn’t find their arse with both their hands. Do you believe me now? The ‘mastermind’ who briefed against Yousaf and led to his downfall is the same man who advised Swinney to do this mad, mad thing today – Chief of Staff for both of them Colin McAllister.

It is possible I’m wrong about the above. Certainly it helps me not one little bit if I’m not. The SNP is dragging the cause of independence into a crisis. This utter, utter madness may prove to be a real defining moment in Scottish politics.

What Swinney has done is incomprehensible to me and to anyone else I’ve spoken to today. The SNP is in an existential battle with reality, and reality is winning hands down.

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