Greg Lance – Watkins
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NO matter the occasion, he may be depended upon to stoop to it. In this era of political pygmies, Ian Blackford distinguishes himself by being smaller, still, than his uninspiring opponents.
Time and again, this puffedup little man heaves himself to his feet in the House of Commons and, jowls quivering, displays his desperate limitations. Mr Blackford has one setting and it is marked ‘perpetually furious’.
The Westminster debating chamber – home to some of the greatest orators in British history – echoes with groans as the SNP’s Commons leader launches into yet another prolonged whinge.
Though a majority of Scots did not vote for his party, Mr Blackford presents himself as the voice of a nation. If his parliamentary interventions are anything to go by, that makes ours a nation of chippy little men who are never happier than when they are describing the many and varied slights they have suffered.
Even among the SNP ranks, Mr Blackford is viewed as a figure to be ridiculed rather than respected.
‘He is,’ says one activist with admirable succinctness, ‘a pompous wee nyaff.’
The contempt with which Mr Blackford is viewed by some of those who sit with him on the SNP benches is, at best, an open secret in the Palace of Westminster.
One observer points out: ‘It’s common knowledge that the knives are out for him among the SNP Westminster group.
‘It’s been nearly two years since he took over as Westminster leader – and he rarely lands a blow at the big moments. He appears to be increasingly frustrated at his own performance and is relying on stunts to grab headlines.’
The latest of these stunts came on Tuesday, when Mr Blackford broke the rules of Parliament during a Brexit debate to declare Prime Minister Theresa May a liar.
Eventually, under pressure from Commons Speaker John Bercow, Mr Blackford grudgingly recanted his accusation. To those who have followed the SNP man’s political career, this little stunt will have come as no surprise.
Since he succeeded Angus Robertson – who lost his seat in 2017’s snap General Election – as the Nationalists’ Westminster chief, 57-year-old Mr Blackford has been notable for his mediocrity. As one party colleague witheringly puts it: ‘Ian isn’t exactly a natural in the chamber, so he has to try extra hard – and he often ends up looking a fool.’
Mr Robertson was considered a serious political operator by Government frontbenchers and their Labour shadows alike. Mr Blackford most assuredly is not.
‘With Angus,’ says one SNP activist, ‘we had someone who didn’t need stunts or flashy moves because he had the brain for the game. Because he was good on his feet and always knew the question to ask, the other parties respected him. They don’t respect Ian. They think he’s a joke.’
One political journalist who has followed Mr Blackford’s political career observes: ‘Angus Robertson was arguably the biggest loss for the SNP in 2017’s General Election – and his successor barely measures up.
‘Yet Ian has a sense of grandeur about him – a self-importance which is obvious when he speaks in the chamber or during one-to-one chats. But, when he actually speaks, no one is really listening.’
The derision with which Mr Blackford is viewed by opponents was absolutely clear during a debate in the Commons last October.
In his response to Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Budget, during which he accused the Treasury of short-changing farmers, Mr Blackford described himself as ‘a simple crofter’.
It is certainly true that Edinburgh-born Mr Blackford owns a modest ten-acre croft on the Isle of Skye, but there was nothing simple about his journey to such a seemingly humble station.
In fact, the SNP’s Westminster leader is a wealthy man, his fortune made during decades as an investment banker. After making his claim, Mr Blackford faced jeers from opponents.
Former trade minister Greg Hands said: ‘I noticed him describing himself as “a simple crofter”. I have a little bit of doubt about this. I had a career in the City and I don’t recall him being a simple crofter at that time.’
To sniggers from MPs, Mr Hands continued: ‘Maybe that was his code name on his Bloomberg terminal as he was buying and selling financial assets.’
An SNP insider says: ‘The truth is that Ian made his fortune being exactly the sort of establishment type that we’re supposed to be against. When he came away with that “simple crofter” stuff, he opened the goal for the other side. It made it look like he had something to hide.’
Tuesday’s clash with the Speaker was not the first time Mr Blackford and Mr Bercow have come to political blows.
Last June, the Nationalist MP – who defeated troubled former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy to win the Ross, Skye and Lochaber seat in the 2015 General Election – caused chaos during Prime Minister’s Questions when he refused the Speaker’s instruction to sit down while protesting at what he described as a Brexit ‘power grab’ from Scotland.
After a stand-off lasting several minutes, Mr Bercow ordered Mr Blackford to leave the chamber, a move which prompted a mass walkout by Nationalist MPs.
Ironically, the SNP’s Mhairi Black yesterday complained to the Speaker that MPs have a habit of leaving the chamber whenever Mr Blackford gets up to speak. One compelling explanation for this might be that those MPs know precisely what the predictably outraged Mr Blackford is going to say.
His somewhat aggressive approach to politics upset many who were close to Mr Kennedy, who died only a month after losing his seat in 2015.
During the election campaign, Mr Blackford’s team frequently posed the question: ‘Where’s Charlie?’ on social media. Friends of the Lib Dem MP described this as a ‘dog whistle’ allusion to his painful battle with alcoholism.
When, during an interview last year, Mr Blackford expressed pride in his campaign and insisted there had been ‘absolutely no issue’ between himself and Mr Kennedy, the reaction from some quarters was fierce.
Former Labour minister Brian Wilson wrote of his ‘sense of outrage’ that Mr Blackford would carry ‘self-exoneration to new heights’.
He said the campaign against Mr Kennedy had been ‘bewildering and humiliating’. He already knew, added Mr Wilson, that the rise of the SNP would cost him his seat.
Mr Wilson’s point about the SNP surge that followed defeat in the 2014 independence referendum is an especially good one.
It is surely clear that, without that fillip, Mr Blackford would not be an MP.
As one SNP activist, with concerns about the calibre of some candidates, put it to me shortly after the 2015 election: ‘A rising tide lifts all the boats.’
In fact, not so very long ago, Mr Blackford’s career in the SNP seemed to be over.
In May 1997, he failed to win the Ayr seat in the General Election, then lost the Paisley by-election in November.
Later, while SNP treasurer, he clashed with then leader Alex Salmond over the party’s finances.
In 2000, Mr Blackford was removed from his role following a vote of no confidence and entered a prolonged period of obscurity.
Some might say that, based on his preference for stunts over substance, Ian Blackford’s time in the political wilderness should never have come to an end.
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