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by Kirsteen Paterson and Louise Wilson
06 December 2022
SNP leadership contest: Who are the candidates for Westminster roles?

Black, Flynn, McDonald and Thewliss join Westminster colleagues for a pic with Sturgeon in 2019

SNP leadership contest: Who are the candidates for Westminster roles?

SNP MPs meet today for their AGM – and to select their new group leader and deputy leader.

Ian Blackford is stepping down from the former role and Kirsten Oswald, who served as his depute, says it makes sense for her to stand down too.

Speculation would have had this as a coronation, with relative newcomer Stephen Flynn set to succeed the Skye politician for the leadership.

However, there are now two runners after Alison Thewliss announced she too would stand. 

Both have named their preferred deputies, with Thewliss nominating Stuart McDonald to pick up the reigns from Oswald and Flynn linked privately to former "baby of the House", Mhairi Black.

Voting will be confined to group members and takes place in an online ballot. The results are expected to be announced this evening.

Holyrood understand that the 44-strong group is split over the matter, and that the result is likely to be close.

Whilst Thewliss and McDonald are seen as safe pairs of hands who will retain strong ties with Edinburgh, and the former has made uniting the group a key part of her pitch, Flynn and Black are expected to have a different approach. Sources say they are more likely to support the MPs taking a more rebellious line in the UK Parliament, including actions such as walk-outs.

Here Holyrood looks at the candidates:

Alison Thewliss

The MP for Glasgow Central, Thewliss is easily spotted in a crowd and in the Commons as she literally wears her party allegiance on her sleeve, thanks to her extensive wardrobe of yellow clothing, which may or may not be the largest of its kind in Scotland. 

Mercifully for Thewliss, it's also one of the signature colours of her football team of choice, Motherwell FC.

First elected to Glasgow City Council's Calton ward, Thewliss studied politics at university and worked as a researcher for the late West of Scotland MSP, Bruce McFee. 

She's mum to children Alexander and Kirsty, and, after breastfeeding in council meetings, she set out to make the Commons more family-friendly, also becoming chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infant Feeding and Inequalities and introducing a bill to tighten up laws around the advertising of formula milk in 2016. A date for its second reading has yet to be announced.

Thewliss is also the MP who highlighted the "rape clause", which was buried in George Osborne's 2015 Budget. She campaigned vociferously against its implementation and has a reputation as being a strong constituency MP, particularly on cases involving asylum, immigration and welfare issues.

Her grasp of numbers placed her on Blackford's frontbench as Treasury spokesperson, and has come in useful elsewhere; whilst other candidates tend to stand back at election counts and wait for the results, Thewliss handles vote sampling herself and rates herself as very good at it. 

Now close to SNP leader and Glasgow Southside MSP Nicola Sturgeon, she unseated Labour's Anas Sarwar to enter Westminster and her office team initially included David Linden, who has since joined the SNP Westminster group as MP for Glasgow East.

Stuart McDonaldFormer solicitor Stuart McDonald is most commonly confused with his SNP benchmate, Stewart McDonald. Commons authorities have the Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East MP listed as "Stuart C McDonald" to distinguish him from his Glasgow South colleague.

However, fellow SNP MPs tend to refer to him as "the good Stuart McDonald", to avoid any confusion.

The distinction is in part due to the deputy leadership candidate's reputation for having a cooler head than his defence spokesperson colleague.

Known for his calm demeanour, McDonald hadn't expected to beat Labour incumbent Dr Gregg McClymont in 2015, but gained more than 50 per cent of the vote and a majority topping 14,000 votes.

He studied law at the University of Edinburgh and worked on the NHS Scotland legal team before moving on to specialise in immigration law.

Currently the group's shadow home affairs spokesperson, he supports Dundee United and had a spell as a referee before entering politics, when he'd run the line at junior games.

His CV also includes stints working for Yes Scotland and the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights, as well as for the MSPs Jim Eadie and Shirley-Anne Somerville. 

On his first day with the latter, he was introduced to another young staffer – one Stewart McDonald, who was then on his second day working for Anne McLaughlin – another member of the SNP Westminster group.

His Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill would give parents up to 12 weeks of additional time off work and salary payment when their newborns are admitted to hospital for stays of seven days or more. It will have its report stage and third reading in February.

Stephen Flynn

The Aberdeen South MP once admitted to Holyrood that his guilty pleasure was continuing to support Dundee United – despite being "someone who lives in Aberdeen and represents a fair chunk of the city".

The football-mad former councillor is part of the SNP's Tuesday Club, a group of male MPs who get together to play five-a-side followed by a curry every (you guessed it!) Tuesday.

Being able to take part in this is something he will take great pleasure in, having been unable to walk without supports or crutches for 17 years – up until two years ago, when he had a successful hip operation.

Flynn was 14 when he collapsed in pain at school, which doctors later diagnosed as avascular necrosis – the death of bone tissue due to a lack of blood supply.

Speaking shortly after the op in 2020, he told the Press and Journal: "I have a sparkly new hip and I'll be spending the next few weeks heeding the advice of the physios so I can again enjoy the simple things in life – with a pain-free walk along the beach with my little boy being top of the list."

Flynn's first child was born just three days after his election in 2019, meaning he joined his new colleagues down in London a few weeks later than everyone else. He and his wife, Lynn, now have two children and a dog called Angus.

Long considered the frontrunner to be the next Westminster leader, reports surfaced in mid-November that he was contemplating standing against Ian Blackford at today's AGM. At the time, he tweeted: "As much as I love seeing photos from the days when I was still clinging on to some hair, I can confirm I've no intention of standing."

Mhairi Black

It's probably a three-way tie on how this SNP firebrand is best known: her barnstorming speeches at Westminster; becoming the youngest MP to ever be elected at just 20; or when a "maths is shite" tweet (written when she was 14) became national news in the days after her election. But not one to let things slide, she reiterated her stance: "Maths is shite," she tweeted again in June 2015.

The MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South joined the ranks of the Commons while still technically a student at the University of Glasgow (she would graduate a few months later).

She got heavily involved in the Yes campaign in the run-up to the independence referendum, once having to fill in at a debate against a panel of seasoned politicians – including Ruth Davidson – with 40 minutes' notice.

She has never hidden her disdain for Westminster. In 2017, she said: "It has been nearly two years and I still hate the place. It is depressing. It is the personal elements – it is a pain to come up and down every week and you are working with a number of people you find quite troubling."

Picked early on as potential leadership material, both Jim Sillars and Ian Blackford have spoken highly of her talents. She even met with former SNP leader Alex Salmond when she was first elected – though he suggested she should "go shopping" with then fellow MP Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh to "find [her] own style".

Asked in a recent episode of the Untribal Podcast about who she is, Black admitted to being "a real geek". She later added: "My wife will tell you that I’m an arsehole."

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