October 13, 2023 - 1:10pm

The SNP wasn’t short of troubles before East Kilbride MP Lisa Cameron decided to defect to the Tories yesterday, days before the party’s first autumn conference since Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation. Scottish Labour’s resounding victory in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, questions over the cooperation agreement with the Scottish Greens, and a lack of clarity over the planned route to independence were already casting a cloud over an event which will prove a test of Humza Yousaf’s popularity and leadership.

On one level, Cameron’s departure wasn’t surprising. Facing deselection, her frayed relationship with the rest of the party’s Westminster group was hardly a secret. Though headline-grabbing, joining the Conservatives is less damaging than a move to Labour at a time when the latter is beginning to threaten the SNP’s hegemony. But — coming so soon after party stalwart Fergus Ewing’s suspension — it could be read as a sign that, without Sturgeon’s adhesive powers, the Right and the Left of the party are becoming unstuck.

Ewing and Cameron are both on the Right and socially conservative, something they have in common with defeated leadership rival Kate Forbes, whose latest attempt to undermine Yousaf has been to travel to the US rather than attend the conference which starts in Aberdeen on Sunday. Ewing, an eco-sceptic, earned his suspension by backing a vote of no confidence in Government minister and Greens co-convenor Lorna Slater. But the backlash against the power-sharing deal goes beyond a hardcore of oil fundamentalists worried about the SNP’s opposition to the UK Government granting a licence for the Rosebank field. 

Concerns about the Greens’ ultra-progressive stance on issues such as the controversial Gender Recognition Reform Bill escalated when former co-convenor Maggie Chapman tweeted: “What’s happening in #Palestine is a consequence of #Apartheid, of illegal occupation & of imperial aggression by the Israel state.” Her later clarification did little to dampen the anger.

Yousaf’s own unequivocal condemnation of Hamas was dignified and measured, and there has been much sympathy for the plight of his wife’s parents, who are currently trapped in Gaza. But there are still conflicting opinions about the party’s new strategy for gaining independence. 

Though a joint motion, signed by Yousaf and Westminster leader Stephen Flynn, initially suggested winning “most” seats would represent a mandate for independence negotiations with the UK Government, this is likely to be changed to “a majority of seats”, setting the bar slightly higher at 29. This could be a risky strategy considering that if the 20.4% swing seen in the by-election were replicated across the board in the general election, Scottish Labour would take upwards of 40 seats. 

Another group of MPs is pushing for the 2026 Holyrood election to be considered a de facto referendum. None of these options explain what mechanism would be used to force a Conservative or Labour government’s hand should it refuse to engage, given the Supreme Court has already ruled the SNP cannot hold a referendum without the consent of Westminster.

The party has another circle to square: support for independence is holding steady while its own popularity is waning. Yousaf has acknowledged the perception that the SNP has been overly focused on process while failing to deliver on its core domestic policies: tackling poverty, narrowing the educational attainment gap and now the cost-of-living crisis. But how does it marry tackling those with wooing back those supporters for whom independence is key?

The SNP has mostly blamed its by-election defeat on bad feeling engendered by MP Margaret Ferrier, who lost her seat over Covid breaches, and the shadow cast by the ongoing police inquiry into SNP funds, which suggests it hasn’t yet begun to face up to the scale of its problems. But the fissures that have been forming over the past few years will be all too visible in the glare of the conference. After the by-election, former first minister Alex Salmond said Yousaf had just a few days to save his job. This was an overstatement. But whether or not he can steady the ship and unite the factions may indicate if he’ll still be at the helm come next year’s conference.

Dani Garavelli is a Scotland-based freelance journalist and columnist for The Herald.