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Scottish politics

Stephen Flynn’s first year as SNP Westminster leader – what’s the verdict?

Experts and SNP insiders give their assessment of the Aberdeen MP’s first 12 months in charge. reports.
Justin Bowie
Stephen Flynn has been SNP Westminster leader for one year. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson.
Stephen Flynn has been SNP Westminster leader for one year. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson.

From ousting Ian Blackford to being named Britain’s “hardest” MP, it’s been a rollercoaster year for Stephen Flynn since he became the SNP Westminster leader.

The Aberdeen South MP has seen his star rise at a time when his party has been bogged down in scandal, infighting, Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation, and a byelection defeat.

Here SNP insiders and political experts give their verdict on Mr Flynn’s first 12 months in the hot seat – and what lies ahead for him as the Westminster election approaches.


How’s he viewed within the SNP?

Not everyone within the SNP appeared completely happy when Mr Flynn took on the role on December 6 last year, just weeks after denying a plot to get rid of his predecessor.

He defeated Glasgow’s Alison Thewliss to secure the top job, but more than a dozen MPs backed her in what proved to be a tight contest.

Since then, SNP insiders think the Aberdeen MP has proven himself up to the challenge.

Party sources said Mr Flynn had worked hard to heal any lingering divisions within the party.

Stephen Flynn with his predecessor Ian Blackford. Image: Stephen Flynn.

One insider claimed he had done an effective job at bringing Edinburgh MP Joanna Cherry back onside, after she became a vocal critic of her own party.

Mr Blackford was described as being friendlier with rival party politicians, whereas Mr Flynn is seen as being more confrontational and direct.

Another insider said the Aberdeen MP had been a “revelation” in the role.

How’s he performed in public?

Author and political commentator Andrew Liddle, no fan of the nationalists, said Mr Flynn had been one of the “most impressive nationalist politicians” since he took on the job.

“He’s really come into his own as someone who I think has a clear vision and strategy for how the SNP can remain relevant,” he added.

Mr Flynn won praise for his efforts during Prime Minister’s Questions, when he gets the chance to grill Rishi Sunak on a weekly basis.

Former SNP MP Stephen Gethins, standing again at the next election, said he was “clearly a good performer in the chamber”.

Ex-SNP MP Stephen Gethins. Image: Kenny Smith.

He praised Mr Flynn’s handling of the push for a Gaza ceasefire in Westminster, putting pressure on Labour.

Expert James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, said: “He’s had a good year.

“One of the key moments in the week is Prime Minister’s Questions and I think he performs quite well at that.

“I think he’s much better than either of his two predecessors. He’s got a punchy approach.”

SNP MP Angus MacNeil
Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil, who was expelled from the SNP.

Even Western Isles veteran Angus MacNeil, who was expelled from the SNP and now sits as an independent, had positive words for his old boss.

He said: “Stephen Flynn is a very good performer at Prime Minister’s Questions, which is mainly what the job is about – those few minutes on a Wednesday.”

But just how important are those exchanges with the prime minister each week, at a time when the SNP’s fortunes in the polls have been slumping?

Prof Mitchell said: “I’m not convinced that the public at large really know much about him. Prime Minister’s Questions is not something the public at large watch avidly.”

What challenges lie ahead?

For all the plaudits, the nationalists remain likely to lose seats to Labour at the next election due.

And it’s not all plain sailing among the Westminster group either, where clear divisions remain.

One insider claimed the SNP is far from united.

The insider added: “He’s still a long way to go in becoming the type of experienced leader we’ve always had.”

Can Mr Flynn be blamed if the SNP sustain major losses given scandals surrounding the party in Holyrood?

Health Secretary Michael Matheson has been under intense pressure in recent weeks over the row surrounding his huge £11,000 iPad bill.

Political commentator and author Andrew Liddle.

Mr Liddle said: “If I was Stephen, the thing that would frustrate me would be the current leadership at Holyrood.

“He’s scored some good successes with regards to immigration recently, but that’s all been undermined by ineffectual leadership at Holyrood, particularly around Michael Matheson.”

He added: “The wheel of change is turning in Scottish politics. It will be very difficult for Stephen or indeed others to stem that tide.”

Is he a future SNP leader?

Mr Flynn may be content in the House of Commons for now, but the main goal of his party is to be rid of Westminster forever.

For any SNP politician down south, there is only so much that can be achieved when the party can never hold government posts.

Could Mr Flynn consider a place at Holyrood in future? Could he be a first minister?

Professor James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh University.

Prof Mitchell believes there’s a chance.

He said: “I think he’s a possible future SNP leader. But I think the SNP is about to go into opposition at Holyrood.

“If I was advising him, I’d be saying hold back for a bit, because you’ve got a difficult period to go through.”

He added: “He’s utterly untested in terms of being a minister, and it’s a much more difficult job.

“I think the danger for him is that he comes across at times as a student politician. He has good one-liners. But there’s no evidence of depth there.”

Despite that, Prof Mitchell added: “I don’t doubt for a moment that his star is on the rise within the SNP.”


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