29 March 2021 | UK NEWS

Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey have joined Salmond’s party just days after the former First Minister launched Alba on YouTube.

During his press conference on Friday afternoon, Mr Salmond said: “Boris Johnson has already said no to the SNP’s proposals. He will find it much more difficult to say no to a Parliament and a country. The independence debate will be recast, not as the Tories against the SNP, but Boris Johnson against Scotland’s Parliament representing Scotland’s people.”

The ex-First Minister’s launch was, however, riddled with technical glitches. The Zoom tab replaced the end of a short promotional video, background music continued to play as the camera panned back to Salmond and Sky News’ James Matthews question was muted as he flickered on-screen.

Nonetheless, the former Scottish Justice Secretary and current MP for East Lothian, Kenny MacAskill, announced that he would be the first Westminster politician to rally behind Salmond’s standard on Saturday.

MacAskill had been highly critical of Sturgeon’s independence strategy for some time and, in September 2020, he described Sturgeon’s preparations for a second independence referendum as “moribund”.

The veteran independence campaigner declared that he intended to stand on the Lothian regional list in the upcoming elections to the Scottish Parliament on May 6.

The SNP’s leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford, denounced MacAskill’s departure and claimed: “He has been an increasing embarrassment to many in the SNP, and his departure is now somewhat of a relief”.

On Sunday morning, MacAskill was joined by Neale Hanvey.

Hanvey, who was elected to represent Gordon Brown’s former constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2019, will stand as a candidate on the regional list for Mid Scotland and Fife.

But the former leader of the SNP group on Fife’s council has had a controversial political past. Before his election to Parliament in 2019, Hanvey was suspended from Sturgeon’s party for making anti-Semitic posts on social media, including one that compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the treatment of Jews in the Second World War.

Despite the previous posts, Hanvey was re-admitted to the SNP and served on the party’s frontbench as their Vaccine Spokesman. In February, he was again sacked, this time for supporting a crowdfunding bid to sue his SNP colleague Kirsty Blackman for defamation.

The National, a pro-independence newspaper in Scotland, has reported that the SNP are “braced” for further defections to Alba.

One MP believed to be considering jumping to Alba was the SNP’s former spokesperson for Home Affairs and Justice, Joanna Cherry.

Cherry had recently announced that she was taking time away from her role as an MP due to health reasons.

But as a long-standing ally to Salmond, some SNP insiders feared she was planning to quit and stand for Alba.

Cherry, however, took to Twitter to reiterate her position: “Yesterday, I said I was taking some time out for health reasons. Any speculation to the contrary is incorrect. I intend to return to work as the SNP MP for Edinburgh South West when I am able. Thanks for all the good wishes.”

Since their defections, MacAskill and Hanvey have faced pressure from the SNP and Labour to stand down and trigger by-election contests.

Scotland is already preparing for a by-election in Airdrie and Shotts following Neil Gray’s decision to stand for election in Holyrood for the SNP, rather than continuing to sit in Westminster.

However, MacAskill and Hanvey’s seats are less safe than Gray’s. Both men will need to fend off the Labour Party if a by-election is called. In 2019, MacAskill achieved a majority of less than 4,000 over his Labour opponent, whereas Hanvey defeated Lesley Laird to gain the seat from Corbyn’s Labour.

Following the announcement, the Conservative and Unionist Party leader in Scotland, Douglas Ross, has urged “Labour and the Lib Dems to work with the Scottish Conservatives, just as we did in 2014”.

“With the very real threat of a so-called Nationalist ‘super majority’, pro-union parties cannot sit on the fence and continuing to do so would be naive in the extreme,” added Ross.

Whilst it may at first appear that Alba’s launch would split the pro-independence vote, Salmond’s decision not to stand candidates in any of the 73 Holyrood constituency contests may aid the separatist cause.

This will, for example, assist the SNP in the defence of their marginal seats, including Moray, Edinburgh Pentlands and Perthshire North.

Instead, Alba will put forward candidates, including MacAskill and Hanvey, across Scotland’s regional lists.

Mr Salmond will also be standing as an Alba candidate on the North-East ballot.

Chris Hopkins, the associate director of Savanta ComRes, has suggested that Alba’s creation could “essentially manipulate” the Scottish electoral system and ensure Holyrood will have more pro-independence MSPs than the SNP could elect on its own.

“By taking votes away from the SNP in the list, it’ll put the top-up seats usually won by the Conservatives, Labour and Greens most at risk, as the SNP do not tend to gain many addition list seats – such is the dominance they show at the constituency vote,” added Hopkins.

Jack Walters is a final-year History student at UCL. He has previously conducted political research used by The Telegraph, penned a piece in The Daily Express, and contributed to Brexit Central.

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