Ian Blackford is stepping down as SNP leader at Westminster, as Nicola Sturgeon’s party prepares to appoint a new chief to lead the push for Scottish independence in parliament.
The MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber said it was time for “fresh leadership” in the Commons, announcing that he would not be standing again at next week’s SNP parliamentary AGM.
His exit follows reports of plot to oust him as the Westminster leader amid a row over his handling of sexual misconduct allegations against SNP MP Patrick Grady.
Only last week Mr Blackford insisted that he would stand for re-election and lead the party until independence. “I look forward to being the MP that leads the SNP group out of Westminster for the last time,” he had told The Scotsman.
But on Thursday Mr Blackford said he would be taking on a new role at the centre of the SNP’s push for another Scottish independence referendum, leading on business engagement.
“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.
He said: “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: “Whoever replaces me as Westminster leader will have my full support as, together, we stand up for Scotland’s interests and democratic right to choose our future in an independence referendum.”
Mr Blackford had faced calls to resign over his management of sexual misconduct claims against his colleague Mr Grady.
Many in the party were angry that he did not force Mr Grady to step down as SNP chief whip when allegations emerged. Leaked audio sparked further frustration when Mr Blackford was heard saying the MP should be supported.
Mr Grady quit the party in June to sit as an independent after the Metropolitan Police said they were investigating allegation of sexual assault. Scotland Yard announced in July that no further action would be taken following discussions with the alleged victim.
Ms Sturgeon later said that the support shown for Mr Grady at Westminster amid the allegations had been “unacceptable”.
SNP deputy Westminster leader Kirsten Oswald, the party’s foreign affairs spokesperson Alyn Smith and Joanna Cherry QC will be among the leading contenders to replace Mr Blackford.
Ms Cherry – who has regularly been at odds with the SNP’s leadership in Edinburgh and London on a range of issues in recent years – openly welcomed Mr Blackford’s exit.
“I’m pleased to hear this. It’s time for fresh leadership and tolerance of debate and diverse viewpoints,” she said on Twitter – before warning Ms Sturgeon and her team not to interfere in selecting the new Commons chief.
“I hope the SNP Westminster group will be now be left to choose our new leader without outside interference and in accordance with our standing orders,” she added.
Another frontrunner Stephen Flynn, the SNP MP for Aberdeen South, recently denied reports that he was “on manoeuvres” for replacing Mr Blackford.
It will be up to the 44 MPs who currently hold the SNP whip to choose a new Commons leader at the group’s AGM on 6 December.
Ms Sturgeon paid tribute to Mr Blackford, saying he had done “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 added. “I have also asked him to take on a role as part of the wider SNP team preparing the case for independence.”
Labour MP Ian Murray, Shadow Scottish secretary, says his exit showing SNP in-fighting. “The SNP is in total disarray – the Nats are deserting the sinking ship.”