Analysis

SNP: what Stephen Flynn’s appointment means for party, and what Pete Wishart said as he quit the front bench

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As Stephen Flynn begins his leadership of the SNP’s Westminster group, NationalWorld takes a look at what his appointment signals, and what’s been said about claims of in-fighting within the party

SNP MP Pete Wishart has announced that he is stepping back from the front benches and took a swipe at new Westminster leader Stephen Flynn. Wishart told his followers on Twitter that he would be resigning as the SNP’s DEFRA spokesperson after Ian Blackford stepped down as Westminster leader.

In his resignation letter, Wishart said that Flynn had sought “a change in our leadership”, adding that he never had the opportunity to discuss Flynn’s plans while the new Westminster leader was “canvassing opinion for a leadership change”. Flynn’s predecessor Ian Blackford has maintained that he was not forced to stand down by his fellow MPs, insisting that it was his own decision to step to the backbenches.

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Wishart’s revealing resignation letter suggests otherwise however. Not only does it allude to Flynn probing MPs for the temperature of a possible leadership change before Blackford’s resignation, but it also hints towards division within the party over the new appointment.

This was only further theorised when Alison Thewliss, a close ally of Nicola Sturgeon, was defeated by Flynn in the leadership contest. The party finds itself at a crossroads as the new independence campaign kick starts in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling.

The bombshell resignation letter will be a blow for Sturgeon and the Westminster group as they seek to unify the party. As Flynn takes over leadership, and the front benches lose previous appointments, NationalWorld takes a look at where the party currently stands and where it could head in the future.

What did Pete Wishart say in his letter?

Wishart, who is the SNP’s longest current-serving MP, has held various frontbench positions, including most recently the DEFRA spokesperson for the SNP. However, his resignation letter details that he was left “bemused” at the change in leadership in Westminster.

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He said:  “I remain bemused as to the reasons why you [Flynn] felt it was necessary to seek a change in our leadership, particularly when we see yesterday’s opinion poll, which shows support for independence at a near all-time high and support for the SNP at Westminster at an unprecedented 51%. Usually change of this significance accompanies failure, whereas we are looking only at sustained and growing success as a movement and party.

Stephen Flynn’s appointment as SNP Westminster leader is a move away from staunch Sturgeon ally Ian Blackford. (Credit: PAStephen Flynn’s appointment as SNP Westminster leader is a move away from staunch Sturgeon ally Ian Blackford. (Credit: PA
Stephen Flynn’s appointment as SNP Westminster leader is a move away from staunch Sturgeon ally Ian Blackford. (Credit: PA | PA

“I am sure that this is something that will become apparent to me during the course of your leadership. I also look forward to learning first-hand what you hope to do differently in the day-to-day management of the group.”

A new IpsosMori and STV poll did in fact show growing support for the SNP and the independence movement. Of the respondents 56% said they would vote Yes to leave the United Kingdom if a referendum was held today, while the SNP drew support with 53% of respondents likely to back the party in the ‘de facto’ referendum.

Speaking to journalists after First Minister’s Questions Nicola Sturgeon said she had not seen the letter from Wishart, adding the leadership change was “done and dusted”. When asked how her relationship is with Stephen Flynn, she said “great, fantastic”.

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Is there a split in the SNP?

Flynn’s appointment as leader in London has also seen the resignation of defence spokesperson Stewart McDonald. McDonald spoke of “his friend” Blackford, as he thanked the ex-leader for the opportunity to serve on the frontbench.

While Wishart and McDonald will remain as MPs, their step back from the frontbench may come as a signal that not all of the Westminster group are on the same page when it comes to Flynn.

When he assumed the role of Westminster leader, Flynn also replaced the chief whip, an intergral role in unifying the party on policy. Owen Thompson was sidelined for Flynn’s choice of Martin Docherty-Hughes.

When Blackford announced his intention to resign as leader of the Westminster group, there was much speculation that he had been pushed to do so by his colleagues. Blackford had become a contentious figure as leader, especially in dealing with several in-party situations.

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For example, Blackford was criticised for his handling of the of allegations of sexual misconduct by Patrick Grady. Grady was later suspended from the Commons after an independent investigation and resigned his party membership. Blackford was heard on a secret recording of a Westminster group meeting urging fellow SNP MPs to give Grady their support.

Whispers of attempted leadership takeovers swirled for months, including MPs Alyn Smith and Stewart McDonald both denying that they had been involved in attempting to oust Blackford. Flynn was forced to deny in November 2022 that he had also been attempting to replace Blackford - Wishart’s resignation letter may point to the fact that Flynn was in fact vying for the top job.

This again may show that there was unseen division within the Westminster group. As Flynn comes to lead the party, his main priority will be uniting the old guard of the party with the new leadership as they look towards Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘de-facto’ election referendum.

Blackford has said he could have won the SNP’s race to elect a new Westminster leader if he had put himself forward. Speaking to TalkTV on Wednesday evening, Blackford told Jeremy Kyle: “I could have seen this off, I believe I would have won if I’d put myself forward.”

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He said: “Look, politics is a dirty business, isn’t it? We all know that. You’re never going to please all the people, all of the time. Some people have a different way of wanting to do things and I think it’s fair to say that some people probably wanted to see the end of my backside off the front bench. That’s fine. They’re entitled to that.” He added: “At the end of the day I’ve moved on. There’s an opportunity there and Stephen’s taken that. He has all my best wishes.”

What’s been said about claims of ‘in-fighting’?

The Westminster group’s role is about to become a lot more important within the party. Winning a majority in the ‘de facto’ referendum in the next general election and capitalising on the STV poll is key to the SNP’s independence campaign going forward. Flynn could be flexing his political muscle and positioning himself as one of the key players in the SNP’s future post-election.

Stephen Flynn was the favourite to replace Blackford from the moment he announced his resignation. So much so that many MPs predicted him to run unopposed. However, Sturgeon ally Alison Thewliss threw her hat into the ring to lead the Westminster group. Thewliss is a well-established member of the group, and impressed many with her speeches as Treasury spokesperson.

While Thewliss was defeated by Flynn, her decision to run against him certainly turned heads. Not only is Thewliss a Sturgeon ally, but the First Minister, who quickly congratulated Flynn on his win, has also lost an ally in Blackford.

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However, any claims of in-fighting within the party have been rubbished by MP Stewart Hosie. Responding to claims from Scottish Tory MSP Craig Hoy, Hosie told BBC Scotland: “I have heard it, normally promoted by the SNP’s political opponents, but the party’s absolutely united behind our goal of achieving independence, absolutely united behind the fantastic leadership of Nicola Sturgeon, and I think with Stephen Flynn at the helm in Westminster we’ll see closer working than we’ve ever done. He added: “Not one word of these divisions is true. I’ve no idea where these stories have come from.”

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