THERE is no doubt that Alex Salmond is enduring his toughest time since becoming First Minister.
He had to come back to the Scottish Parliament to clarify the situation over legal advice and the EU earlier this month and is still facing ongoing criticisms over that debacle. Last week he came back to the chamber again, this time to apologise for getting his figures and all the time he is battling tough opinion poll figures on independence. So what’s going wrong?
One problem is the lack of the trusted Kevin Pringle by the First Minister’s side.
Mr Pringle was, until earlier this summer, Mr Salmond’s chief spin doctor and special adviser. But he was always more than that. Mr Pringle had worked alongside Mr Salmond since before devolution. He was a trusted aide and sounding board. But Mr Pringle is no longer by the First Minister’s side. Earlier this year he was moved back to the SNP as part of a reshuffle designed to help the drive for independence.
Key members of the independence movement, including Mr Pringle, were moved to strategically important roles in the Yes Scotland campaign and to the SNP to make sure that everything worked smoothly in the run-up to the referendum. The idea was that it would be a mistake to have someone of Mr Pringle’s skills tied up with the day-to-day work of government when he could be focusing all his efforts on independence.
Well, that was the theory.
However, since Mr Pringle’s departure, Mr Salmond has endured his most difficult period since becoming First Minister and that is no coincidence. Not only did Mr Pringle have a comprehensive grasp of what was going on in government and give sage advice to the First Minister, steering him away from trouble.
But Mr Pringle also did a magnificent job of soaking up the First Minister’s anger so that it did not spill out of the First Ministerial office and cause ruptions all over the Scottish Government, as it is in danger of doing if allowed to go unchecked. Many times over the past few years, Mr Pringle apparently stood in silence while the First Minister raged against someone – often a member of the press or an official – without passing that fury down the line. He just did his job and took it all on board.
The members of staff that the First Minister has in place instead of Mr Pringle are all good, solid public servants but none of them can do the job that Mr Pringle did. None of them are as close to the First Minister or as trusted to steer Mr Salmond away from confrontations that will serve no purpose in the long run. The result is a major gap at the top of the Scottish Government, a gap that no-one outside that world can really see, but it is a gap which could cause catastrophic problems for the First Minister unless it is filled.
All these rows, gaffes, mistakes and problems are damaging the First Minister and, by extension, they are damaging the pro-independence cause.
It would be an admission of defeat for Mr Salmond to get Mr Pringle back but, if he does not, he risks even more.
Mr Pringle was moved to back to the SNP to help co-ordinate efforts for the independence referendum. The irony is, though, that there may not be much of an independence campaign to fight if the First Minister continues on his current path without Mr Pringle to keep him from getting into trouble.