And no, we have not taken leave of our senses. We have had several sources of verbal information and have seen documentary evidence to show that this insanity is actually in train.
With both Dunoon Councillor Michael Breslin and local MSP Michael Russell seeing their personal political futures under threat from the closure of the Struan Lodge care home in Dunoon – agreed by majority at the recent full council meeting – affairs in the SNP group which leads the current coalition administration of Argyll and Bute Council, are running amok.
Mr Russell’s known interventions and attempted management of the SNP group, appear to be involved in an astonishing set of demands and threats made to the new and second SNP leader of the council in under a year.
Councillor Michael Breslin has issued a series of overt threats to Council Leader Robb, days into his job, of undisclosed action by what he presents as a group of councillors whose membership and number he has not identified.
Councillor Breslin has ‘given’ Councillor Robb to 17.00 today, Monday 25th February, to answer two questions he, Councillor Breslin, has put to the Leader.
The questions are:
- ‘Was last week’s decision a final decision on the closure of Struan Lodge? Yes or no please.’
- ‘If no, will there be another paper which will be the opportunity for a final decision to be made? Yes or no please.’
Councillor Robb has been told that: ‘Failure to be clear about the position will be very problematic James so I urge you to be candid with all of us‘. [Ed: our emphases]
We have seen extracts from an exchange of emails which show a part of the SNP group in the council clearly out of control and rocking up to destabilise their own administration for a second time in a matter of weeks – and with a second leader.
Councillor Breslin, who, in this exchange with Councillor Robb, implicitly presents himself as the leader of this unidentified group, could not credibly be adopting the stance he is without Mr Russell’s approval, to say the least.
As a forerunner to these threats, Councilor Robb, who represents Helensburgh, the most populous and most eastern of the four administrative areas in Argyll and Bute, is being demonised in the often notably managed local Dunoon media.
Mr Breslin’s emails to the Leader are breathtakingly imperious as well as threatening. They contain phrases like:
- ‘I suggest a careful read of the legal advice we got last week before you reply James’.
- ‘We all need clarification on what was approved regarding Struan Lodge last Thursday.’
- ‘ I now insist that you clarify matters by giving us all answers to my 2 questions below, and by 1700 tomorrow please.’ [Ed: our emphases]
From the content of the emails we have seen, the subtext is that the ‘clarification’ sought is not ‘clarification’ as we know it, but is about the new Leader construing the council decision as not really having been a decision at all – so that it can be revisited by a claque, most of whom must have earlier supported it.
Councillor Robb has been clear that a decision is a decision but, from his emails, has worked to calm down the increasingly hysterical communications from Councillor Breslin.
The Council Leader replied to the opening fusillade by saying: ‘Michael, Your recollection is not the same as mine on that conversation. I will be having a Coalition meeting in the near future and I will put this [Ed: the Struan Lodge situation] on the agenda as it is a sensitive matter and an email debate is best avoided. There is no urgency around this as officers are implementing the decision of the Council and the Lead Councillor and I will get regular updates. It has been a matter of days since the decisions in a process that will take at least three months but probably longer.’
This common sense stability met the imperious: ‘I am not prepared to leave things as they are James,’
Together with the threat of a ‘very problematic’ outcome if Councilllor Robb does not issue the ‘clarification’, these emails indicate a politician whose political judgment is serially amiss.
Councillor Breslin had already ‘resigned’ when the council voted on Struan Lodge.
He could have saved Struan Lodge by simply and logically voting against the proposal at council.
He chose instead to abstain – and Struan Lodge was lost by majority vote.
Now he is trying to recover that ill-judged and unprincipled decision by creating a situation and making veiled threats that, if he can deliver them, can only destabilise his own party’s administration – for a second time, in short order and possibly terminally.
Councillor Breslin cannot conceivably be taking this stand without the knowledge and permission of local SNP MSP Michael Russell, who has been nothing less than controllingly proprietorial of the fledgling SNP-led administration.
Why must Mr Russell be involved? Because this situation has all the capacity to take the present SNP-led administration into opposition.
Councillor Robb cannot possibly accede to the demands and threats of Councillor Breslin and whatever cohort he may or may not have at his disposal.
Indeed, some of our many sources for this story have said that Mr Russell’s plan is to force Council Leader Robb into a position where he is presented with a situation he would have to construe as one of no confidence in his leadership, leading to his stepping down, following Councillor McCuish who so recently preceded him.
And that is apparently planned to see Councillor Breslin installed as Leader.
Ruritania, here we come.
It is hard to describe the extent to which Mr Russell’s and Mr Breslin’s ‘tactics’ and ‘judgment’ are politically unhinged.
The SNP has its core raison d’etre coming up in about 20 months – the independence referendum in October 2014.
Here we have a council administration in the controversial thrall of a local SNP MSP who is also a senior politician in his party, Cabinet Secretary for Education.
Yet this is a senior politician who cannot see how damaging it is to his party’s visible competence for this council to be in such perpetual internal upheaval; and who is also prepared to contemplate, if not assist, this administration imploding in the desperate machinations of a councillor who has already made so many profound errors of judgment.
If, in the current hysteria, the leading SNP group collapses and the coalition administration is forced into opposition, the SNP itself, as a putative party of national government of an independent Scotland, will seem even more improbable than it already does.
Dunoon and Cowal are furious with their local SNP councillors, Michael Breslin in particular, because he is a councillor for Dunoon itself – and with local MSP Michael Russell, whose home ward this is.
The fury arises from the politically incoherent, not to say flatly contradictory, actions Michael Breslin took over the budget decision by the SNP led council administration, of which he is a member, to close the Struan Lodge care home in Dunoon.
When Dunoon discovered the plan in the budget papers, there was profound local anger. At this point Michael Breslin, in a panic at the electoral consequences and with his mentor, Michael Russell in the same state as far as his own political interests are concerned, approached then Council Leader, Roddy McCuish and his colleagues.
Mr Breslin threatened to resign from the SNP group in the council if the decision was not reversed. Wisely, Mr McCuish simpy accepted his resignation. As we have said, this was not the scenario Breslin and Russell had had in mind – which had assumed capitulation – and the plan fell apart.
A crisis meeting of the SNP group a few days later saw Councillor McCuish stand down as Leader, and replaced by Councillor James Robb, already Lead Councillor on Finance.
The Russell/Breslin scenario had been for Breslin to replace McCuish – but the Leader’s surprise [and proper] acceptance of the Breslin resignation had left Councillor Breslin’s status in limbo, so Russell had no choice but to watch James Robb become leader of the SNP party group and putative Leader of the Council.
Robb is a genuinely independent minded councilor who owes nothing to anyone, who will make political judgments on their merits – and who was the very last person Russell wished to see installed as leader.
At the full council meeting a couple of days later, Councillor McCuish stood down and Councillor Robb took his place. The full council – this was the budget meeting – voted by majority to agree the Struan Lodge closure proposal, a vote which formally converts an administation proposal to a council decision.
In the council vote, Michael Breslin, who had resigned from the SNP group [later, apparently, restored] in protest at the refusal to change the proposal, abstained instead of voting against it, meaning that, with South Kintyre Councillor Donald Kelly also abstaining, the decision went through.
As we said at the time, where was the logic in resigning over an issue and then abstaining on a vote?
The obvious reason is that Mr Breslin had never imagined his bluff would be called and had assumed that the threat of his resignation would be enough to bring Councillor McCuish to capitulation.
Since then, there have been efforts to get Council Leader Robb to open up for revisiting what is now the council’s decision to close Struan Lodge. Councillor Robb has been maintaining the due proprieties as, in his position, he must do.
And that has led to the ruckus we have today.
Presumably, after 17.00 today something – whatever it is - will start to become clear.
Note: Shortly after the pubication of this article Michael Russell MSP stepped into the open in this manoeuvre, with a quite extraordinary letter to administration councillors. Our article on this development is here.