Back to the day job: SNP conference 2017

Back to the day job: SNP conference 2017

BBC's Nick Eardley talks on how Nicola Sturgeon has had to re-think her party's agenda going into conference season

The SNP approaches conference season with a renewed focus on the "day job" in the Scottish Parliament. 

Nick Eardley
                    Nick Eardley

June's general election saw the party lose 21 seats, more than any other, with big hitters Alex Salmond and ex-Westminster leader Angus Robertson among prominent casualties.

That result led Nicola Sturgeon to park (though not scrap completely) plans for a second referendum on Scottish independence. Gains for the Scottish Conservatives, as well as other unionist parties, were widely interpreted as a protest against Ms Sturgeon's referendum plan. Ruth Davidson's calls for the SNP to focus on running Holyrood appeared to have gone down well with voters.

Hence the packed Programme for Government launched by the SNP government at the start of September.  With 16 new bills – from reform of education to phasing out new petrol and diesel cars by 2032 - Ms Sturgeon appeared keen to show her party was about more than constitutional wrangling. Expect the party's efforts to "refocus " and "refresh" its agenda in the Scottish Parliament to feature prominently at the conference.

Brexit will be front and centre too. The Scottish Government wants to remain in the single market and the customs union after the UK leaves the EU and is focussing its efforts for now on getting support for that position. There is genuine anger in Edinburgh at the way some believe UK ministers are bypassing devolved counterparts in the Brexit process and as things stand it is unlikely Holyrood will give its consent for the EU Withdrawal Bill (formerly known as the Repeal Bill).

Expect to hear more at the conference about the Scottish government’s position on Brexit and calls for a more inclusive approach. Will there be more detail on what the SNP government in Edinburgh does next?

As for independence, it’s a difficult balancing act for the party hierarchy.

Nicola Sturgeon knows it’s the issue that fires up her activists more than any other - and always attracts the biggest ovation during her keynote. The SNP leader needs to keep the tens of thousands who joined the party after the 2014 referendum coming back. But after the general election, it’s not the issue she wants in the headlines. Hence the party keeping the option of another vote at the end of the Brexit process on the table, but not talking about it too much.

An interesting backdrop to the conference will be questions over party management, after criticism of the handling of the case of Michelle Thomson (the former MP was linked to a police probe into mortgage deals, wasn’t allowed to stand for the party in June and was told she would face no action a few weeks later).

Ms Thomson called for Ms Sturgeon to apologise, criticised the SNP’s business manager Derek Mackay and questioned the set up at the very top, with Ms Sturgeon being married to SNP chief executive Peter Murrell. Former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has questioned that relationship and “centralisation of power” too.

After a decade in power, the SNP remains Scotland’s biggest party, but it goes into conference season seeking fresh focus in an attempt to retain that positon.

Nick Eardley, Westminster correspondent, BBC Scotland