POLITICS

SNP's New Westminster Leader Admits Nerves Ahead Of His First PMQs

Ian Blackford said he didn't want the top job but was 'strongly encouraged' by others.

28/06/2017 09:45 BST | Updated 28/06/2017 12:16 BST

The SNP’s new Westminster leader has admitted “a degree of nervousness” about his first PMQs at the helm today.

Ian Blackford, who takes on the high-profile role after Angus Robertson was ousted by a Tory, said another independence vote is “off the table” for now and the SNP will instead focus on fighting austerity and Brexit.

The former investment banker describes himself as “a relaxed person” who has a “different style” to his predecessor.

He aims to strike a “respectful” tone after the SNP lost a third of the 56 Westminster seats it won in 2015, with Nicola Sturgeon heavily criticised for “obsessing” over Indy Ref 2 in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote. 

But when Blackford was asked why he wanted the job, he said: “In all honesty, I didn’t. I don’t know if I’m supposed to admit that or not.”

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He added: “I have been happy playing my part and had Angus have been here there would have been no vacancy.

“I was strongly encouraged by colleagues to put my name forward. I am delighted I did and I’m enjoying the job but I did not have any personal ambition that pulled me towards it. 

“It is something circumstances dictated.”

Robertson’s performances at PMQs - which is the most-watched hour of House of Commons business each week - gained him the reputation of being the ‘real leader of the opposition’.

Blackford said his former colleague will be a tough act to follow. 

He said: “I understand the importance of PMQs because Angus Robertson was so blooming good at it. 

“There will be a certain amount of people wondering what my first one will be like. 

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“I’m actually quite a relaxed person - though hopefully not too laid back - but I’m sure there will be a degree of nervousness. 

“I’m looking forward to representing the group at PMQs and using my two questions to hold the Prime Minister to account.

“I don’t want to become typecast. I will use different styles at different times.

“I’ve got massive respect for Angus Robertson, he is a colleague and a friend as well, but we’re different people and I will do things in a different way.” 

When asked how, Blackford added: “We are in a different Parliament, and even Angus would have a different style perhaps. 

“I will be trying to reflect the mood of the House and the mood of the whole of the UK. 

“We have come through a trying time so I think you want to be a little bit respectful - though not too much - but also recognise that I think people across the country want politicians to work together.”

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Theresa May has no authority in the House of Commons, says Blackford

The Prime Minister is on borrowed time after the Tories’ disastrous election, he said. 

“Theresa May is a Prime Minister without authority,” he said. “The only reason she is still there is because the Tories cannot work out who they want as an alternative. 

“She is almost a hostage to her party. She personally has had a disaster, calling this election in anticipation - in arrogance, really - of getting a landslide and coming out with a minority government. It is not a good place to be in. 

“I think she has struggled with the burdens of office with everything that has happened in the recent past so I’m not sure she commands the authority of her own party, never mind the authority of the House.”

Blackford is aiming to keep the UK inside the single market, reflecting how 62% of Scots voted to remain in the EU. 

He said: “I don’t think there is a majority for hard Brexit and we will be looking to play a positive role trying to protect the interests of the people of Scotland but also, arguably, the interests of people across the whole of the UK.” 

Sturgeon had called for a second independence poll to be held in the autumn of 2018 or spring of 2019, when Brexit talks will be nearing a conclusion. 

She has now said she will delay the legislation but it was still “likely” a referendum would be held by 2021.

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Nicola Sturgeon in Scottish Parliament this week said her plans for indy ref 2 were on hold

Blackford said: “I think it is a wise move. 

“It is a pragmatic approach. We are taking it off the table for today to allow us to focus on the priorities of Brexit and presenting an alternative to austerity.

“We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the SNP have won the last three Scottish elections in Holyrood. We won the last two Westminster elections in Scotland. We are still in a very strong position. I’m disappointed that we lost seats but that was from a very high watermark of 56 seats in 2015. 

“We will demonstrate that we are worthy of the trust of people in Scotland in government in Edinburgh. And out of that, when the time is right, we will be in a position to say to the people of Scotland: we are asking you to follow us and vote for independence, but that moment will come when it is appropriate to do so.”

Blackford strongly defended Sturgeon continuing as leader, despite her personal poll ratings plummeting in the wake of the fresh push for independence. He also claimed the press were targeting her. 

In the run-up to the 2015 vote, the Daily Mail suggested she was “the most dangerous woman in Britain” as speculation of a Labour-SNP pact intensified. 

He said: “I’ve got a massive amount of admiration for the First Minister. I think she has shown a massive amount of leadership during difficult times. 

“It saddens me that sections of the press have demonised her to the extent that they have done.

“I’ve certainly witnessed the abuse that women politicians get is much greater, for some reason, than what males tend to get. 

“It is simply unacceptable.” 

Blackford said living standards were in decline and he laid the blame at the door of the Conservatives. 

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Alex Salmond and Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh lost their seats at the election

He takes on the job as the Tories enjoy a revival north of the Border under Ruth Davidson’s leadership. Two of the SNP’s most high-profile casualties to her party were former leader Alex Salmond and Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh. 

Blackford said: “It does anger me that we are now looking at effectively 15 years of austerity. We are in a time when inflation has increased. It has increased as a direct result of that Brexit vote. 

“Living standards are falling and I think people are just fed up that this is lasting as long as it has done. We need to do better. 

“And I do think for the Conservatives that austerity is a choice. They have found a billion pounds for Northern Ireland. So when they say the money is not there, we know that is not true. 

“There is a disconnect between monetary policy and fiscal policy. Why else do we keep saying ‘we all have to share in the pain’?

“We have seen a massive increase in quantitative easing. We are not saying we should not have engaged in QE, it was absolutely necessary when the programme started in 2009. 

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Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson is transforming the party's fortunes north of the Border

“But it is £435bn of new money and that has gone towards support the balance sheet of the banks and financial institutions. 

“You could argue that those who were responsible for the crisis have been rewarded. If you look at the equity market, it has gone up 70% over the course of the last eight years while people’s wages have stagnated. 

“There has not been an equivalence of where the pain has been felt.” 

Labour won seven seats in Scotland, the Tories 13 and the Lib Dems four. All of the pro-UK parties had held just one seat each previously, suggesting it makes sense for the SNP to put independence on the back burner. 

Blackford said: “Expectations were at a low level but Jeremy Corbyn is a very astute campaigner. Particularly south of the border, he was able to galvanise the support of young people. 

“In Scotland, Labour’s vote was only marginally up, but Corbyn has reduced the prospect of the Conservatives winning an overall majority and that is something that we would welcome.”