On May 9th, just two days after the general election, Nicola Sturgeon held a press conference on the banks of the Firth of Forth, outside Edinburgh. Framed by the iconic red cantilevers of the Forth bridge, the Scottish National Party leader beamed as she introduced the SNP's newly-elected 56 MPs to the media, some for the first time.
Standing just behind Sturgeon as she spoke was a smiling Michelle Thomson. The new MP for Edinburgh West, who came to prominence during the Scottish referendum as director of the pro-independence group Business for Scotland, had been swept into office on a swing of more than 25 per cent.
Six months on from that stunning victory, Thomson is now an independent MP, following the first serious scandal to the grip the bumper Scottish nationalist cohort at Westminster. Just over a week ago, Thomson resigned from the SNP after
announced it was investigating the MP’s involvement in “alleged irregularities relating to property deals”.
Before election to parliament, Thomson had amassed a buy-to-let property portfolio worth over €2 million. But, a Scottish newspaper revealed, her solicitor, Chris Hales, had been struck off by the Law Society in 2014 following an allegation that he had been involved in possible mortgage fraud relating to the sale of a number of properties in central Scotland.
Thomson, her husband Peter, and their business partner were named in the investigation that led to Hales being struck off. Some of the sales under investigation involve so- called “back-to-back” deals, where homes – often owned by vulnerable people – were bought at below full market value and then resold at far higher prices, in some cases on the same day. In other instances mortgages were obtained for more than the official price paid for the property.
Thomson, who was the SNP’s business spokeswoman at Westminster until her sudden resignation, has strenuously denied any wrongdoing, telling journalists that she looked forward “to returning to play a full role in party activities”.
But the pressure on Thomson – and the SNP – has only grown since the story broke.
This week Thomson was referred to the House of Commons standards watchdog.
Tory MP Andrew Bridgen called on the parliamentary commissioner to examine "serious questions" about her suitability to be an MP, although a formal investigation is thought unlikely, as the property deals took place before she became an MP.
Nicola Sturgeon, renowned for her political acumen, has distanced herself from Thomson, but Scotland’s first minister has refused to condemn the MP’s property dealings outright.
Meanwhile, photographs of Sturgeon and Thomson together before and after Scotland’s independence referendum campaign have circulated widely on social media.
Ahead of the general election, Sturgeon told voters that Thomson stood for “fairness, equality and prosperity”, issues that the SNP has put at the centre of its social democratic brand.
In the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh this week, Kezia Dugdale, recently appointed Scottish Labour leader, said Sturgeon was wrong to appoint Thomson to speak for the SNP on business. Dugdale also called for an independent inquiry into why it took the Law Society so long to pass on information about Hales and his possible involvement in mortgage fraud to the authorities.
An SNP member of the Scottish parliament accused journalists and others of jumping to conclusions before all the facts of the Thomson case are in.
"[She] has been accused of nothing; she's certainly been found guilty of nothing. So at the end of the day we should allow the investigation to take place," James Dornan told BBC Scotland.
Michelle Thomson’s travails come on the back of a difficult few weeks for the Scottish nationalists, who saw their membership more than quadruple to over 110,000 in the wake of defeat in last year’s independence referendum.
Scottish government ministers were recently accused of cronyism over a decision to give a £150,000 (€202,000) grant to the concert promoters behind the profitable T in the Park festival. Some rank-and-file members have expressed disquiet over candidate selections ahead of next May’s Scottish elections and Sturgeon’s lack of clarity over calls for a second independence referendum.
Nevertheless, the SNP gathers for its annual conference in Aberdeen next week in rude health. Eight years after taking power in Edinburgh, polls put the nationalists on course to win an unprecedented second majority in the devolved parliament next year.
Michelle Thomson will not be present in Aberdeen and questions about her business dealings are unlikely to pose a serious challenge to the SNP, says commentator David Torrance. "But it does undermine one of its key narratives about doing politics differently, not being like other parties."
The Thomson case also undermines the SNP’s core message of social justice, says Torrance. “When senior nationalists line up to endorse a candidate’s commitment to the poor and vulnerable, when arguably she’s been exploiting the poor and vulnerable, ‘social justice’ has just become another empty catchphrase.”