ANALYSIS: Why Nicola Sturgeon cutting Alex Salmond loose is a pretty big deal

Posted On: 
10th November 2017

Improbable as it may seem to modern-day Westminster-watchers, in 2004 the SNP were in a right old state.

Nicola Sturgeon's patience has finally snapped with Alex Salmond.
Credit: 
PA Images

John Swinney had been jettisoned as party leader following a horrific set of European election results, plunging the party into chaos.

The resulting leadership contest appeared to be a shootout between rising star Nicola Sturgeon and the relative veterans, Roseanna Cunningham and Mike Russell.

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Cunningham seemed on course for victory - a prospect which did not meet with the approval of Alex Salmond, who had stood down as leader in 2000 and wanted Sturgeon to be the SNP's new head honcho.

A secret deal was then done between Salmond and Sturgeon. She would agree to step aside in the contest for leader and instead run on a joint ticket with her mentor. If party members agreed to give Salmond another crack at the top job, she would be his deputy.

Salmond won and three years later became Scotland's First Minister, ushering in a period of previously unimaginable success for the Nationalists.

In 2011, the party won an overall majority at the Scottish Parliament, a result which Holyrood's proportionate voting system was supposed to make impossible.

Even defeat in the 2014 independent referendum failed to derail the SNP juggernaut. Salmond stepped down, but the baton was passed to his chosen successor Sturgeon, who was more than ready to assume the role after her 10-year apprenticeship at his right hand side.

Another Nationalist landslide, this time at the 2015 general election, followed. Salmond was one of 56 SNP MPs elected and quickly set about making his presence felt. Opportunities to push the cause for a speedy second independence referendum were rarely passed up, regardless of whether or not that strategy accorded with the views of Sturgeon and her team.

When Sturgeon finally did reveal her hand in March, demanding that indyref2 be held by spring 2019 at the latest, "sources" told Sky News that she had been pushed into doing so by Salmond and her supporters. Salmond vehemently denied the claims, but the impression remained that he was attempting to be a backseat driver at a critical time in Sturgeon's leadership.

After losing his seat at the June election, Salmond was unlikely to retreat into the background. But few expected him to chase the limelight in the way he has. His one man show at the Edinburgh Fringe, though well-attended, is memorable only for an off-colour 'joke' in which he appeared to suggest he had had sex with Theresa May, Ruth Davidson ... and Sturgeon.

Excruciatingly for the First Minister, she was forced to insist that her predecessor was "not sexist", although she did say that his attempt at humour "belonged more in the Benny Hill era than in the modern era".

Her carefully-chosen words showed that Sturgeon knew that to most grassroots Nationalists, Samond remained the man who had delivered unimaginable success and brought them to within touching distance of independence. It meant she had to treat Salmond like an embarrassing uncle at a family wedding - barely tolerated but never publicly criticised. 

That all changed today, however, when her patience finally snapped. The trigger was last night's announcement that Salmond is to host a weekly chat show on the Kremlin-funded TV channel Russia Today. Derided as a propaganda outlet for the Putin regime, politicians have long been criticised for appearing on it. Salmond would have known - and most likely secretly-hoped - that the announcement would have led to a flood of criticism. "Dangerously undignified", one SNP MP told PoliticsHome, while Nationalist MEP Alyn Smyth was more blunt: "What the f*** is he thinking?"

In a statement issued this morning, Sturgeon was cautious in her use of language, but the message was clear: Salmond had run out of road.

"I am sure Alex’s show will make interesting viewing – however, his choice of channel would not have been my choice," she said. "Of course, Alex is not currently an elected politician and is free to do as he wishes – but had I been asked, I would have advised against RT and suggested he seek a different channel to air what I am sure will be an entertaining show. Neither myself nor the SNP will shy away from criticising Russian policy when we believe it is merited."

This is significant because it marks the beginning of the end of a 13-year partnership, and a decisive - some might say long-overdue - break with the Salmond era.

A quick glance at social media shows there are still many, many SNP supporters willing to defend Salmond to the death, convinced that the RT row is further evidence of a plot by the "Yoon media" to do in their hero.

That means this is a high-stakes gamble for a party leader still trying to assuage the grassroots' desire for a second referendum while placating a wider electorate thoroughly sick of constitutional politics.

It was a call that Sturgeon had to make. And it is one that she needs to pay off.