Tories warn of Salmond threat to pro-union parties in Scottish election

Rift in independence movement deepens as two Scottish National Party MPs defect to new Alba Party

Former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond poses for a portrait  in Strichen on Saturday. Photograph: Peter Summers/Getty Images

Former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond poses for a portrait in Strichen on Saturday. Photograph: Peter Summers/Getty Images

 

Former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond’s new Alba Party threatens to undermine support for pro-union parties in crucial elections on May 6th, Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross warned on Sunday.

Mr Ross’s warning came after two Scottish National Party members of the UK parliament defected to Alba, which aims to use Scotland’s two-vote electoral system to win a bigger pro-independence majority in the parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh.

Mr Salmond’s return to frontline politics on Friday dramatically recast campaigning for the Holyrood election and opened a new chapter in his bitter rift with Nicola Sturgeon, his successor as first minister and SNP leader, just as she plans a fresh push for independence.

Analysts have said Alba could undermine the SNP’s chances of winning a majority in its own right at Holyrood and by splitting the vote could even mean fewer pro-independence candidates winning seats.

But Mr Ross said Alba was “more likely” to do harm to unionist parties and that they should all work together to preserve UK unity. “We have got to understand that threat, not ignore it and assume that we can continue as normal,” he told Sky News.

But renewed focus on constitutional issues in the campaign could also help the Conservatives consolidate their position as Scotland’s biggest opposition party. In recent years the Tories have focused heavily on the threat of independence in order to take votes from Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats by casting themselves as the strongest champion of the union.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats dismissed Mr Ross’s call for them to “come together as one campaign” with the Conservatives, saying the election should be about recovery from coronavirus not the constitution.

“Douglas loves his gimmicks, but he’s part of the problem not part of the solution,” Willie Rennie, Scottish Lib Dem leader told the BBC on Sunday.

Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour leader, was even more direct. “Douglas, grow up. We are not in the playground, this is not a game,” he said on Saturday.

Troubled start

Alba is not running candidates in any constituency races but only in the so-called regional list part of the election, in which members of the Scottish parliament are elected on a proportional basis.

It has suffered a technically troubled start with a glitch-plagued video launch, and a breach of the anonymity of people signing up for online events. At the weekend the party announced the defection to it of SNP MPs Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey.

The move by Mr MacAskill, a former Scottish justice secretary who has in recent years been highly critical of Ms Sturgeon’s leadership of the SNP, prompted a particularly sharp response from the party.

“He has been an increasing embarrassment to many in the SNP and his departure is somewhat of a relief,” said SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford.

Mr Salmond, who earlier this month accused Ms Sturgeon of breaching Scotland’s ministerial code and her closest associates of plotting to drive him from public life, is now keen to portray his new party as working alongside the SNP to achieve independence.

He told the Sunday Mail newspaper that he believed Ms Sturgeon should remain as Scotland’s first minister after the election. “She is the only viable independence candidate and therefore she is the best one,” Mr Salmond said.

In 2019 the Scottish government was forced to concede in court that its investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct by Mr Salmond had been unlawful because it was “procedurally unfair” and “tainted by apparent bias”. At a criminal trial last year, Mr Salmond was acquitted of all 13 sexual offence charges against him.

But the SNP says Mr Salmond still has “serious questions” to answer about his conduct. During his trial, Mr Salmond admitted to what he said were consensual sexual encounters with much younger and more junior female colleagues while he was first minister. On Friday, he dismissed suggestions he had anything to apologise for, saying it was time to “move on”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021