By the end of Thurday’s meeting of Argyll and Bute Council, we had seen an orchestrated internal conflict in the SNP administration group come to a head following sudden, contradictory and politically bizarre interventions by a previously invisible SNP Constituency Association.
The catalyst had been the council’s decision to close Dunoon care home, Struan Lodge. This had been agreed by the administration [and later approved at February's council meeting] on the grounds that, as a small home, generously staffed and offering good quality care to a very few residents, its costs were simply not sustainable in the context of serious spending cuts to be made.
As awareness of the decision grew, Dunoon, which is to Argyll and Bute what Lanarkshire has historically been to Scottish Labour, went to war. Amongst all sorts of accusations, the overall cost given for the running of Struan Lodge was challenged.
With the claymores shaken at the skies on the doorstep of his home ‘ward’, Argyll and Bute’s SNP MSP, not unusually, became unnerved, as did two SNP councillors, respectively representing Dunoon and Cowal.
The outcome was an externally managed internal campaign to try to threaten two successive SNP leaders of the council into submission. These threats were resisted by both, although the first chose to depart for well earned peace of mind.
The failed plots saw the unintended departure of one SNP group member, whose resignation bluff was called; and, in the run up to yesterday’s meeting, the genuine resignation of a second one, fed up with the shenanigans around the same issue.
Yesterday’s meeting was scripted to leave crippled the second SNP council leader in under a year. The script was duly performed.
So where are we now?
We have a tied council.
We have a Council Leader who has been scapegoated in what has been a vicious and personalised internal campaign to remove him, following the harassment of the first, who chose to depart only on 14th February.
The current leader has lost a key vote by the deliberate intervention of his own party administration, which had been specifically supportive of his agreed budget strategy only days before.
We have a party leading a coalition administration that has, deservedly, no political credit left.
We have the precedent of a decision properly taken by the council later abandoned in political panic following local protest.
We have seen the local party organisation repeatedly ‘urge’ elected councillors to disable their own party’s administration and to embarrass it in defeat.
We are in the endgame of the politically suicidal ‘strategy’ of the local MSP, to get his party out of power to prevent unpopular decisions impacting on the 2014 Independence Referendum vote.
The opposition, too calcified to abandon old habits, has retired to the shadows to calculate its options. SNP interests appear, unbelievably, to be party to these deliberations.
How does this administration now govern at all?
If administration councillors feel that they did not take their initial decision on closing Struan Lodge on secure evidence, why did they not make sure the information was correct and robust before they voted?
It’s not as if they have no good reason to scrutinise offcers’ ‘evidence’ with particular care.
After this supine defeat by local protest, where is there security now that any decision this administration takes and that is approved by full council, will actually carry? What happens if another special interest group protests loudly over something else? Why should they not? And especially if they’re in Dunoon and Cowal, which are clearly allowed to pull the levers.
Moreover, after this stage managed defeat of the SNP leadership by the SNP, administration councillors of any colour have no obligation to support any collective decision that later becomes unpopular. There can be no governmental stability in this situation. Anything goes and everything went.
The politically mutilating conduct of the local SNP MSP and the SNP Constituency Association Convenor has left their party a laughing stock in Argyll, bereft of respect and trust, certain never to get near power here for a very long time. The memory of this tragicomedy will live long – and its opponents will see to that.
The local MSP is widely known to have been the animateur of this SNP administration from the outset and the architect of what has been car crash politics. We have fingered him for this and he has felt it necessary to tell the Oban Times this week: ‘I want this administration to succeed’.
Yet he been personally engaged in the departure of its first Leader and has been very publicly seen to work to undermine its second.
The Constituency Association convenor must be assumed to have been acting on instructions – otherwise he would already be very well known as a spectacularly cavalier apparatchik, where few have ever heard of him.
How does the current Leader now lead?
The current Council Leader, its second in so short an administration, has been maligned, reviled, isolated and all but disowned by what passes for ‘authority’ in his local party. The local MSP, the party’s Dunoon councillor, nor and the Constituency Association convenor have all taken to the media to hack his legs off. Bullying doesn’t come close. They did not dare to attack in this way the previous leader, who had obstructed them with equal determination to see the doctrine of collective responsibility properly observed.
The first Leader is a universally popular man and trying on him the sort of vicious stunts they pulled on his successor would have seen the perpetrators run out of political life – but they still made his life as Leader a misery, which is why he chose to step down.
Like all bullies down the ages, this cabal felt free to impugn the current Leader, who is, by nature, more solitary. He also does not represent any of the traditional heartlands of Argyll but the relatively new addition of Helensburgh on its southeastern fringe, which, while in the local authority area, comes under a different constituency MSP. Destroying him is, for the Argyll and Bute MSP, a free ride.
Whatever the differing views of the rights and wrongs of theStruan Lodge issue, no civilised human being can condone such deeply primitive personal and political behaviour. It has been disappointing that Dunoon appears not to be able to leave behind it a smash and grab mentality.
The core issue here has been about elderly care provision across Argyll as a whole – yet what councillor has even remembered this and tried to focus attention on that overarching responsibility?
The current Leader – and procedural propriety – have had the political earth moved against them in the self interest of others.
If Dunoon has convinced itself that this was an altruistic crusade in its interests, a Cowal webpage very close to the local MSP, has quoted ‘an SNP source’ as saying that it was politically stupid to close a care home with the 2014 Independence Referendum coming up. From the horse’s mouth.
On paper, while three of its members voted against the administration yesterday, only one was an SNP member and he had, incredibly, been licensed by the party to act as he did.
In reality, the current Leader must be well aware that there were other members who knew that the maths had stacked up for the defeat of the administration they had been ‘urged’ to bring about – and would also have voted against it had it been necessary.
This is not a sustainable situation, either for the current Leader or for the council.
A tied council
With the departure of two SNP members from the group and the party, the second shortly before the council meeting on Thursday, the council is tied.
The administration has 18 members and the opposition now also has 18.
For Thursday’s session, this can be argued to have been the position of a minority administration but this is, of course, not a sustainable situation.
Why did the opposition not strike?
There had been much talk of a vote of no confidence in advance of the meeting.
But when the field was won to enable this, with the 21-13 defeat of the administration both to appoint the opposition nominee to the Provst’s chair and then, by the same majority, to make mayhem of a budgetary matter agreed earlier, the opposition did not move.
The grubby reality is that they still prefer the old backroom deals in smoke filled rooms.
These are going on and some politically surreal options are being explored, some laughably thought to be ‘face saving’ for the SNP.
It has been the local MSPs masterplan to get the SNP out of power to prevent unpopular decisions it might have to take in leading the administration from hitting on the 2014 independence vote. Because we blew the whistle on this plan, it is not so easy to effect as it might have been. Folk are watching.
One option now appears to be the formation of a new coalition – which the SNP would not have to lead [which it fondly thinks would see it held less responsible] but which might contain some, but not all, of its members.
If they seriously think that this would be a face saver, that would be entirely in line with the monumental political stupidity that has characterised the external manipulation of this fledgling administration from its earliest days.
There is no face left to be saved.
For whatever reasons and with whatever motivations, the SNP group leading this administration lost sight of what they were elected to do – to serve the interests of all of Argyll and Bute in good government.
They have been seen to have been driven by party political interest – both perceived and explicit. They have left party politics in Argyll with no respectability. That at least may prove to be a bonus.
Who knows what administration will emerge to lead the council, or when this will happen.
It will not be pretty. It will not be inspiring. But if it is competent it will be a relief. And if it is led by Independents, at least we will know no party is pulling their strings.
In inglorious memory
By the end of Thursday’s meeting we had seen:
- the local SNP Constituency Association first passing a motion in support of the budgetary decision to close Struan Lodge care home in Dunoon, citing specific fiscal considerations;
- then, days later, the Convenor of that Association writing to elected SNP councillors, repeatedly ‘urging’ them to vote to allow the revisiting of that same decision [which most of them had previously supported and was their agreed SNP-led administration's policy] – and then to vote it down;
- the Convenor, offering them ‘the full support’ of the Constituency Association in the politically fratricidal and patricidal action he was ‘urging’ them to take;
- the approval of the revisiting of the Struan Lodge decision by the opposition nominee voted 21-13 with administration support into the Provost’s chair for the session;
- that approval of the reopening of this decision made for reasons which remain procedurally unclear. The acting Provost had been advised by two senior council officers, the Director of Strategic Finance and the Executive Director for Community Services, that, in their opinion, there was no ‘material change’ to the information on which the original decision had been taken. He chose to disregard this and instead prefer arguments advanced by the former Council Leader – who had framed the amendment – and the proposer of the motion replaced by the amendment – even though, as the line goes, ‘They would say that wouldn’t they.’;
- the motion to reverse the Struan Lodge decision being proposed by a former SNP councillor who had resigned and been suspended from the party – following his two earlier failed plots to have the decision reversed by threatening, in turn, each of the two SNP leaders of the administration;
- this motion seconded by a standing member of the SNP administration who had been given special licence to act against his own party and administration in this way; and to vote it down – which he did;
- this motion being so incompetent in its framing that it had to be set aside at the last minute and replaced by an agreed amendment from the former Council Leader whom the SNP group had worked so hard to unseat;
- the amendment from this source agreed by the SNP dissidents, with party backing, in order to attract support for it from minority opposition LibDem and Conservative groups, which had, not long ago, been pilloried by the SNP for their role in the previous council administration;
- this amendment passed by a 21-13 majority – the full opposition including the two recent resignees from the SNP, plus the out-on-licence current member of the SNP and two coalition partners [both from outwith Cowal, one who has consistently voted to keep Struan Lodge open as a matter of judgment];
- the headlong approval of this amendment – which did not reverse the decision on Struan Lodge at all, speaking only of its not being closed ‘at this time’; making no mention whatsoever of any material change to the costs of the closure of the home, which had been so furiously and specifically disputed by the SNP dissidents and by the opposition leader from who the amendment had come; and making no reference to a key plank of the flawed motion it replaced – the accepting of new residents into Struan Lodge;
- the failure of an opposition, assumed to be keen to govern, to lodge a motion of no confidence in the administration – which it would almost certainly have won;
- an immediate renewal of the public reviling of the current Council Leader in a local Cowal webpage renowned for following the direction of the local MSP – and quoting ‘an SNP source’ as saying that it was politically stupid to close a care home in the run up to the 2014 Independence referendum;
- the deliberate destruction of the current leader, whose effort – as that of the leader who preceded him in this young administration – has been directed at maintaining the discipline of collective responsibility on which democratic decisions are taken;
- the opening of doors all across Argyll to the loss of budgetary control with every other place whose care facilities may be under threat fully entitled to ask why they should be denied the favours advanced to Dunoon?
The footnote is that, already, the bungling plotters are realising that they bought a very large pup in the amendment they couldn’t wait to support; and Dunoon is waking up to a less successful tour de force than it had been celebrating.