When Alex Salmond announced that he would stand down as the leader of the SNP the timing could barely have been better, although it didn’t look like it at the time.
The country was still suffering from the post referendum hangover, and the media was having a field day at his “failure” .
So many people I spoke to during the campaign said they were either voting no because they didn’t like him or were voting yes in spite of not liking him.
I thought the first group were certifiably stupid and I was honestly baffled by the attitude of the second. I have always liked Alex Salmond, and I’ve always rated him. He is the sharpest political operator this country has ever known. He is intelligent and personable.
If he sometimes seems a little smug that’s probably a natural consequence of forever being the smartest guy in the room. Not only is it understandable, but I was always glad that we had a national politician with that much self-belief.
Scotland badly needed that. It still does.
I was surprised, and at first a little depressed, when he announced that he was resigning, but as I watched his speech I could see the gleam in his eyes. I detected none of the emotions you’d expect from someone who’d suffered a defeat and was on the way out. He looked tired, but we all felt exhausted that day.
But he did not look like a loser.
When he spoke of the succession everyone knew it was going to be Nicola; there would be no battle, just a seamless transfer of authority from one leader to another, without rancour or bitterness. I knew instinctively that it would be a successful one.
The upsurge in SNP support can actually be traced to that moment.
The people who couldn’t get behind Alex, for whatever reason, had no such problems with her. She was, and is, personable and genuine, humble but possessed of that toughness and intelligence we required.
SNP membership went through the roof in the aftermath of that announcement. It has now topped 100,000 and it might well go higher still.
Everything about that changeover went perfectly. We should be glad, because it doesn’t always work out that way.
Leadership elections can be deadly. They can create turmoil and uncertainty in a political organisation. Some of them have been out and out disasters, opening serious wounds such as Michael Foot’s winning the Labour leadership, which turned the party inside out and led to the formation of the SDP. Others are, by their nature, destabilising.
There were risks, real risks, with a leadership election, especially after a defeat. We didn’t just get lucky. Luck had little to do with it, as it happens. Alex and Nicola had obviously planned this together and that made all the difference.
It’s now clear that Alex had intended to go to Westminster and that the two-parliament strategy has been long thought out. It was not a leadership election as much as it was a change in strategy, and it may be about to pay off in a way few expected.
If any two political operators in Britain were able to foresee the coming changes it is our First Minister and former First Minister. Even if they didn’t see it in advance, they certainly know how to take advantage of it.
Westminster politics is about to be plunged into chaos, and that chaos will grow out of a series of tremors at the top of every other party.
The Liberal Democrats are facing a rout, and senior members have already moved to “life after Nick Clegg”. They are already talking about who takes over next, openly and publicly. Clegg himself may not survive long enough to face a challenge.
His seat is under serious threat as a coalition of students and community activists is determined to end his career. Ashcroft has been polling in the constituency and the Deputy Prime Minister is in the fight of his life.
The Liberal Democrats still harbour ambitions of being part of a coalition, but there are many within Labour who point blank will refuse to work with Clegg, and there are those in the Tories who absolutely will not work with Tim Farron.
In both parties are people who will want some kind of clarity on that … and that’s if there are enough Liberal Democrat MP’s to make much difference anyway.
Their party is split into various factions. Power has held it together thus far.
When they no longer have soft seats around the cabinet table to unify them, when they have suffered a terrible defeat and the blame casting starts – and it will be straight down ideological lines, which is the worst sort of division in a political organisation – then you’ll see serious problems emerge.
The position of David Cameron is just as precarious. If the Tories do not win the most seats he is done for. His announcement that he won’t run for a third term is disingenuous, even if most of the media won’t be straight about what he’s actually saying.
He’s concluded (or members of his party have helped him conclude) that failure to win a majority two elections running mean there won’t be a third crack at it. This is his last national race because he’s terrible at them.
Winning a majority against Gordon Brown should have been a slam dunk, and I have never seen a leader of of one of our major parties get such a sustained caning as Ed Miliband, yet Cameron has not been up to the task of beating either.
If Labour finishes the largest party he will quit the same day. The scramble for the leadership could be bloody, especially if Osborne jumps into it against Johnson.
I suspect that the London mayor will be super-pissed if his party leader goes. 2018-19 is perfect timing for him; right now he has too much on his plate running the capital and a lot of people will see it as highly presumptive for him to make a leadership bid within weeks of returning to Parliament.
Yet he knows that if he delays there will be no leadership challenge until at least 2020 … and if Cameron’s successor wins that race then Johnson may as well give it up.
The Tory Party might even split. Does that sound impossible? If they elect the wrong guy there will be a lot of members who’ll join UKIP instead. The Euro-sceptic wing will certainly erupt if they get a leader determined to keep Britain in the EU. The damage it could do to them might prove colossal … and generational.
Labour’s problems are deep, and wide too.
If Ed Miliband wins then he’s probably in place as Labour leader beyond the horizon. I cannot foresee Labour overthrowing a guy who has won an election. He will contest the 2020 race for sure, but the direction of the party will be decided a lot sooner than that and it’s likely to cause serious internal debate and maybe spark some resignations, depending on what his early choices are and who he ends up sharing power with.
If he loses, of course, he is gone and the party will convulse itself over who his successor should be. I suspect it will lurch rightward again, with the New Labour crowd blaming Miliband’s abandonment of “the centre ground”, which for them means Blairism and all the neo-conservative ideology that goes with that.
Furthermore what’s happened in Scotland means they won’t make the party up here a consideration; they will elect a centre right English leader, and then even this country’s band of remaining dreamers will have to take the blinkers off and accept that Labour will always put its own self interest first.
Miliband’s election disguised real problems in that party. They surprised everyone by holding it together in the aftermath of Brown’s resignation.
But the snipers have been surrounding Ed Miliband for the past two years and it is hard to imagine some of the rightward leaning members of the party stopping after he’s in office. With no overall majority, surviving from vote to vote, he will be under constant pressure … and although he will survive his will be an uncomfortable place to inhabit.
Labour in Scotland has an uncertain future. Can Murphy survive what’s coming? Probably. But this time next year, facing up to the likelihood of a similar defeat in the Scottish elections, he will be packing up his pencils.
His tenure will end in bitterness and disaster … and I hope he’s humiliated with it. It would be a fitting finish to one of the most poisonous careers in Scottish politics.
Westminster’s coming storm isn’t limited to the major parties either.
Nigel Farage has already said he’ll resign if he does not win a seat in Parliament and there are problems under the smooth surface at UKIP anyway. If they don’t do as well as expected he might be under pressure and have to go whether he wins a seat or not.
Caroline Lucas is probably secure as head of the Green’s but she might decide that their surge has peaked. If they fail to make the breakthrough she could walk on her own.
Westminster politics is about to experience the greatest earthquake of this generation. All three of the main party leaders are teetering on the brink and the smart money would be on two of them being gone come 8 May. Farage could be following them out the door at the precise moment his party is locked in talks to prop up a government.
It is into this mix, into this chaos, that the SNP will march with a settled and strong leadership blessed with real vision, backed by a unified and driven party dedicated to shaking things up. Chaos is the fertile ground in which we can sow the seeds of our future. This is what we’ve been waiting for.
Can you imagine the possibilities? With all the major parties engaged in self recrimination, tearing themselves to pieces, factions squabbling for influence? And all the while the SNP members will be settling in and holding meetings and making plans.
The historical opportunity is unique. We must not waste it.
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