Many people are this morning furious with Margaret Ferrier, still the MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, and it’s easy to understand why. By travelling from London to Glasgow despite knowing she was infected with Covid-19 she, at least potentially, put other passengers and members of the general public at risk of contracting the virus.
But amidst the vitriol there is a measure of absurdity too. Ferrier’s transgression was so abundantly idiotic it is hard to avoid the thought that nobody in their right mind, not even a member of parliament, could have behaved in this fashion while thinking everything fine and dandy. She did not think – and she is not known, even amongst her SNP colleagues, as a thinker. But even those shocked by her behaviour might pause for a second or two and mutter something along the lines of: “There but for the grace of god…”.
On Thursday night Sturgeon described Ferrier’s actions as “utterly indefensible”; on Friday morning the SNP leader confirmed she had asked Ferrier to resign as an MP. Sturgeon cannot force Ferrier to do so but, with the whip withdrawn, it is clear there is no way back.
And nor, frankly, is it possible to see how there could – or should – be any path to rehabilitation. The House of Commons doubtless comprises more first-class minds and dedicated public servants than would be found in a random sample of 650 British citizens, but it also contains as many first-class idiots as you would expect to discover in such a sample. As the old saw has it, these folk deserve representation too.
Even so, Ferrier’s actions were breathtakingly stupid. It might, at a pinch, be one thing to travel from Glasgow to London while awaiting the result of a Covid test; it is plainly quite another to return home, by public transport no less, after you have tested positive for the virus.
Whatever sympathy one might feel for an MP facing the prospect of self-isolating for a fortnight in a London hotel – for I understand Ferrier doesn’t rent a flat in the capital – is outweighed by the mind-numbing foolishness of her behaviour. Ferrier may pay a heavy price for her mistake, but it’s no greater a price than she has demanded others – notably Dominic Cummings – pay for their own transgressions.
Like sharks, politics never sleeps, and the game is always moving forwards. At the time of writing Ferrier remains an MP, though significant pressure is being applied to change that. Her colleagues are, almost without exception, appalled and furious about her thoughtless behaviour.
Let this be noted however: Ferrier’s disgrace will have few, if any, adverse consequences for Sturgeon, the SNP, or the independence cause. If she resigns – or is recalled – the SNP will likely still be favoured to win any subsequent by-election in Rutherglen and Hamilton West.
Any such contest would be a significant test for Keir Starmer and the Labour party. Ferrier unseated Tom Greatrex in Rutherglen in 2015 but lost the seat to Labour in 2017 before winning it back for the SNP last December. If Labour is to recover in Scotland, it can only do so by taking seats such as Rutherglen. The party is under new management but a by-election could easily prove the kind of examination for which Labour is, as yet, unprepared.
Much would doubtless depend on the 10,000 voters who endorsed Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates last year. If they lent their votes to Labour, the SNP could plausibly be defeated. Were that to happen, however, the result could easily be interpreted as an anti-SNP protest – with Unionist voters supporting the best-available non-SNP candidate – more than as an endorsement of Labour and Starmer, per se. Still, if there is a by-election it is hard to avoid the thought it is one that matters more to Labour than to any other party.
Moreover, although Ferrier’s disgrace is a reminder that stupidity recognises no party boundaries, Scottish voters are capable of appreciating that her folly does not impact the broader, deeper, case for or against independence. Anyone who thinks it would is bathing in the comforting waters of wishful thinking.
Nor, I think, are they likely to be terribly interested in the precise tick-tock of when the SNP first knew about Ferrier’s flagrant breach of the coronavirus regulations. They will instead note the swiftness with which Sturgeon denounced her colleague and, fairly or not, contrast that with Boris Johnson’s disinclination to part ways with Dominic Cummings in the aftermath of the Barnard Castle affair. Ferrier’s transgression, to be sure, was more severe than Cummings’ but the difference in leadership reaction remains pronounced. That Ferrier matters little to Sturgeon while Cummings matters hugely to the Prime Minister is beside the point.
So Unionists hoping this will cause the SNP some difficulty are liable to be disappointed yet again. That may be the single most significant political lesson of this absurd moment of sublime idiocy. But, really, what an extraordinary moment of obtuseness.