Scotland’s first minister Humza Yousaf is braced for his first electoral challenge after a UK parliamentary committee recommended a 30-day suspension for an ex-Scottish National party MP who broke rules at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The decision by the House of Commons standards committee — which on Thursday ruled that Margaret Ferrier’s actions in September 2020 amounted to “a conflict between her personal interest and the public interest” — could trigger a by-election in her constituency of Rutherglen and Hamilton West
The prospect of a vote in Ferrier’s seat, located in Scotland’s former industrial belt, will be welcomed by the Labour party, which hopes to pick up as many as 20 seats in Scotland at the next general election.
Sir Keir Starmer’s party held the constituency between its creation in 2005 and Ferrier taking it in 2015. Labour regained the seat in 2017, but Ferrier was then re-elected for the SNP two years later, with a slim majority of 5,230.
Any by-election — which would require the support of at least 10 per cent of Ferrier’s constituents — will also mark an early test for Yousaf, who on Monday stressed the need for SNP unity after narrowly winning the often bitter race to succeed Nicola Sturgeon.
The Commons standards committee’s report on Ferrier, who now sits as an independent, comes as the privileges committee probes whether former prime minister Boris Johnson misled the Commons in his account of rule-breaking parties in Whitehall at the peak of the pandemic.
The Financial Times this month reported that Conservative members of the privileges committee were reluctant to recommend Johnson be suspended for more than 10 days. Some Tory insiders have described a longer suspension, which could trigger a by-election, as the “nuclear option”.
Ferrier, who was in September 2022 handed a community payback order after pleading guilty to “culpable and reckless conduct”, told the standards committee that she “bitterly” regretted her actions. The order included 270 hours of unpaid work.
According to the committee, Ferrier took a test after developing Covid symptoms on September 26 2020. On September 28, before receiving the result of the test, she travelled to London on public transport and learned later that day that she had tested positive for Covid. On the morning of September 29, she returned to Scotland.
Regulations that took effect in England on September 28 required people to self-isolate if they tested positive for Covid.
Although the committee, which is chaired by Labour MP Sir Chris Bryant, concluded that Ferrier had “acted selfishly in her personal interest”, its members were split on the most appropriate penalty.
Allan Dorans, the sole SNP member, voted with three of the four Tory members for a nine-day suspension. Andy Carter, Conservative MP for Warrington South, voted with the majority for a longer suspension.