Nicola Sturgeon is facing calls from within her own Scottish National Party to bury the hatchet with arch-rival Alex Salmond, after he launched a new party which supporters believe could hold the key to delivering independence.
The new Alba Party aims to stand at least 32 regional list candidates in the 6 May elections with the goal of winning a “supermajority” of pro-independence MPs at Holyrood to force Boris Johnson’s hand on a second referendum.
Unveiling the new party in an online address, Mr Salmond declared: “Today Alba are hoisting a flag in the wind, planting a saltire on a hill. In the next few weeks, we’ll see how many will rally to our standard.”
The initiative was dismissed officially by the SNP, which branded it an act of “self-interest” by the former first minister, who has been embroiled in a bitter feud with Ms Sturgeon over her handling of sexual harassment allegations against him, which he was cleared of in court.
Sources close to Ms Sturgeon played down the prospect of Mr Salmond’s new vehicle making much impression on the election, while warning it could do well enough to cost the SNP seats.
But some senior figures in the party believe that the former SNP leader’s plan could offer a “dream ticket” for pro-independence Scots, under a proportional voting system which is designed to make it difficult for an individual party to secure the kind of overwhelming majority in the Scottish parliament that would act as a mandate for a referendum.
Launching Alba in an online address, Mr Salmond pointed out that Ms Sturgeon’s party, while scooping the lion’s share of constituency seats in the 2016 election, was able to secure only four seats on the regional list with 42 per cent of the vote, and may win no regional places at all this time round.
By standing only in the regional contest, and urging supporters to back the SNP in constituency battles, he believes that Alba could boost the overall pro-independence representation at Holyrood to as many as 90 out of 129 MSPs.
One senior SNP figure told The Independent that a result on anywhere near that scale would put Sturgeon in the position where she could demand an IndyRef2 from Mr Johnson, with the threat that if he refused, she could call a new election which would effectively act as a proxy referendum on independence.
“There would have to be a personal reconciliation between Nicola and Alex,” said the SNP figure. “But if you’ve got those numbers, it changes the degree of seriousness which has to be given to the independence movement.”
The SNP needs to get seats on the regional list to form a majority government. It can’t do it any other way. All this party would do is splinter the independence vote, which is not going to help
Mr Salmond argued that Scotland’s additional member system of electing a parliament means that the vast majority of SNP votes on the regional list are “wasted”.
Voters in Holyrood elections have two votes, one for a constituency MSP and one for a regional party list. While constituency seats are allocated on a first-past-the-post basis, regional seats are distributed on a proportional system which favours parties underrepresented in the constituencies, delivering enough seats to Conservatives, Labour and Greens to deny Ms Sturgeon an overall majority in 2016.
“If Alba fights the regional list seats, the wasted votes end,” said Mr Salmond. “The number of independence-supporting MSPs in the parliament could reach 90 or even more.”
And he added: “The initiative for independence should then be led by the parliament, uniting the parties. Boris Johnson has already said No to the SNP proposals. He will find it much more difficult to say No to a parliament and a country. And the independence debate will be recast, not as the Tories against the SNP, but as Boris Johnson against Scotland’s parliament representing Scotland’s people.”
Under Section 30 of the Scotland Act, the prime minister’s agreement is needed for the Scottish government is to call a referendum, something which Mr Johnson insists he will not grant, on the grounds that the 2014 vote in favour of the union should stand for a generation.
SNP MPs dismissed Mr Salmond’s argument. Edinburgh East’s Tommy Sheppard told The Independent: “The SNP needs to get seats on the regional list to form a majority government. It can’t do it any other way. All this party would do is splinter the independence vote, which is not going to help. Both votes for the SNP is the only way to go if you want a choice on the future of Scotland.”
An SNP spokesperson branded Mr Salmond’s initiative “perhaps the most predictable development in Scottish politics for quite some time”.
In comments which betrayed no sign of openness to any rapprochement with the party’s former leader, the spokesperson added: “At this time of crisis, the interests of the country must come first and should not be obscured by the self-interest of someone who shows no sign whatsoever of reflecting on serious concerns about his own conduct – concerns which, to put it mildly, raise real questions about the appropriateness of a return to public office.”
But Mr Salmond insisted his party will take a “positive” stance towards the SNP. “We are not challenging the SNP in the constituencies,” he said. “Indeed we are saying vote SNP or for an independence party on the constituency section. We are giving that support. Our campaign that we have launched is going to be entirely positive.”
Mr Salmond said the new party expects to field a minimum of four candidates in each regional list and hopes to elect MSPs from every area of Scotland. He will himself be contesting the North East regional constituency, where he has previously represented the seats of Banff & Buchan and Gordon at Westminster, and Aberdeenshire East at Holyrood.