Ian Blackford, a close ally of Scotland first minister Nicola Sturgeon, announced on Thursday he was stepping down as Scottish National party leader at Westminster, in a move that highlighted internal divisions over efforts to secure an independence referendum.
Blackford’s decision not to seek re-election as head of the SNP group of MPs at Westminster came just over a week after the Supreme Court in London ruled Sturgeon did not have authority to hold a referendum without the UK government’s agreement.
Sturgeon, leader of the pro-independence SNP, has said she will now use the next UK general election as a “de facto” referendum, which has fuelled concern among some of her MPs that they could lose their seats if the poll turns into a single issue vote.
“The forthcoming general election was crucial in the calculation” that led to some SNP MPs seeking a change of leader at Westminster, said James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh university.
He added MPs may have feared becoming “cannon fodder” in Sturgeon’s referendum strategy, at a time when opinion polls show signs of a Labour revival in Scotland.
“Sturgeon now finds her authority weakened with signs of discontent surfacing that have been brewing for some time,” said Mitchell.
Blackford said on Thursday he was looking forward “to a new challenge at the heart of the independence campaign”, “leading on business engagement”.
Joanna Cherry, an SNP MP who has clashed with Sturgeon and Blackford, said on Twitter that she was “pleased” to hear of his impending departure as party leader at Westminster.
Another SNP MP said Blackford’s departure was just a case of “time for change” rather than proof of a huge split inside the party.
But other SNP figures said some MPs were unhappy with Sturgeon’s cautious approach towards securing an independence referendum.
Blackford’s departure as party leader at Westminster “is probably MPs just giving a flavour of their opposition to Nicola, the remote control from Edinburgh is declining somewhat”, said one MP.
“The fact that Sturgeon is making no moves after the Supreme Court decision is not going down well among colleagues. There are opportunities Nicola is refusing to take hold of.”
Stephen Flynn, an SNP MP who is the party’s energy spokesperson is now expected by some colleagues to replace Blackford unopposed as party leader at Westminster, although insiders said they could not rule out another contender.
During the summer, Blackford faced criticism over the handling of sexual harassment allegations against an SNP MP and some party insiders said it contributed to his departure.
In June Blackford apologised after he was reported to have urged colleagues to “rally around” Patrick Grady, previously the SNP chief whip, who was found by the House of Commons authorities to have sexually harassed a young staff member.
Sturgeon thanked Blackford for his “diligence, tenacity, friendship and loyalty”.
“He led the [Westminster] group at a time of huge electoral success for the SNP, particularly at the 2019 general election, and has done an outstanding job in holding the Tory government to account and in promoting the case for independence,” she added.