Ian Blackford has announced he is stepping down from his role as Westminster leader of the SNP.
“After more than five years in the role, now is the right time for fresh leadership at Westminster as we head towards a general election and the next steps in winning Scotland’s independence,” he said.
The SNP is gearing up to fight the next general election which it claims is a de facto referendum following the Supreme Court’s ruling that Holyrood cannot legislate for another vote on independence without Westminster’s consent.
Mr Blackford said he would continue with his job as an MP and that he has accepted a new role at the centre of the SNP’s independence campaign, leading on business engagement.
“During my time as leader, the SNP won a landslide victory in the 2019 general election, with an increased share of the vote and MPs, and support for independence has continued to grow with polling this week showing a majority in favour,” he added in his resignation statement.
He thanked his staff and said whoever replaces him will have his full support “as we stand up for Scotland’s interests and democratic right to choose our future in an independence referendum”.
SNP sources have told Sky’s political correspondent Joe Pike that Mr Blackford’s move was “a long-time coming”.
Many are tipping SNP MP Stephen Flynn to be his successor.
Mr Flynn, 34, is the party’s business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS) spokesperson at Westminster.
He has previously denied he was mounting a leadership challenge against Mr Blackford.
Just last week, Mr Blackford said he would seek re-election and hoped to be “the MP which leads the SNP group out of Westminster for the last time”.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has rejected reports of a “coup” against her Westminster chief.
‘Time for fresh leadership’
Joanna Cherry, the SNP MP for Edinburgh South West, said she was “pleased” to hear about Mr Blackford’s departure.
“It’s time for fresh leadership & tolerance of debate & diverse viewpoints. I hope @theSNPWestminster group will be now be left to choose our new leader without outside interference & in accordance with our standing orders,” she tweeted.
However, Ms Sturgeon praised Mr Blackford for doing “an outstanding job in holding the Tory government to account and in promoting the case for independence”.
“I would like to place on record my thanks for Ian’s diligence, tenacity, friendship and loyalty in his time as group leader,” she said.
SNP MPs will choose their next Westminster leader at their AGM next Tuesday evening, meaning Mr Blackford’s successor will make their debut at Prime Minister’s Questions the following day.
Blackford under pressure to resign
Blackford’s departure was ‘long time coming’
Among SNP MPs there seems to be a sense that Ian Blackford’s departure was a “long time coming”.
I had heard for months that Mr Blackford would likely be challenged at the annual general meeting (AGM) of his party’s Westminster group.
His allies, however, always brushed this off as “nonsense”.
Ian Blackford had been widely criticised for his handling of the Patrick Grady saga.
Mr Grady, then the SNP’s chief whip, made a sexual advance towards a young colleague in 2016 and was later suspended from the Commons for two days.
Mr Blackford was seen as slow to act and is said to have initially told colleagues they should give Mr Grady their “absolute full support”.
Some within the party privately question why anyone would want Mr Blackford’s role: leading a bunch of tricky characters who are in perpetual opposition at Westminster, a parliament they ultimately want to leave when Scotland becomes independent.
One MP who does not share that view of the job is Stephen Flynn, the party’s 34-year old business spokesperson.
I understand he has been working on his leadership campaign for months, doing the painstaking work of speaking to colleagues and building support.
“Ian would not have gone if Stephen didn’t have the numbers”, one SNP MP told me.
Allies argue Mr Flynn commands the floor of the House of Commons, has stood up to Nicola Sturgeon in the past and survived, and is interested in strategy and ideas.
Other possible contenders include Mr Blackford’s deputy Kirsten Oswald, the party’s foreign affairs spokesperson Alyn Smith or defence spokesperson Stewart McDonald.
SNP MPs will choose their new leader at their AGM next Tuesday evening.
This means Mr Blackford’s successor will make their debut at Prime Minister’s Questions the following day.
Ian Blackford has been a significant figure in the SNP for decades.
He recently said that because Scottish independence was within his party’s grasp, he wanted to be the SNP’s final leader at Westminster.
In that aspiration he has failed.
Mr Blackford had previously faced calls to resign over his reaction to one of his MPs sexually harassing a staff member.
The victim, who was inappropriately touched by SNP MP Patrick Grady at a party in 2016, told Sky News earlier this year: “Ian’s position right now is untenable, and it will continue to be so. It will only get worse.”
Mr Blackford was under pressure after a leaked recording emerged in which he encouraged colleagues to support Mr Grady.
The SNP Westminster leader later released a statement in which he apologised for the “completely unacceptable” behaviour the victim was subjected to, and an external review was launched into the support available to staff.
Mr Grady has said he is “profoundly sorry” for his behaviour after being found to have breached parliament’s sexual misconduct policy.