Scotland's leaderless socialists in turmoil

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Indy Politics

Two weeks after the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) leader resigned amid lurid allegations about his private life, the members are in turmoil. Last night, party elders held a meeting to discuss the crisis left by the sudden departure of Tommy Sheridan, who had taken their party from nowhere to six seats at the last Holyrood elections.

The special executive committee is expected to call for an emergency session of the party's national council in an attempt to halt the bitter in-fighting and recriminations. And the hardline socialists admit they are in trouble.

Faced with debts of more than £200,000 on its £800,000-a-year turnover, the prospect of a trouncing at next years' general election, and the loss of its charismatic leader, the party appears to be falling apart.

Mr Sheridan, who shot to fame when he was jailed for his opposition to the poll tax, claimed he was resigning after 15 years at the forefront of the socialist fight because his wife was pregnant and he wanted to be a "hands-on father". But days later, a Sunday newspaper published claims that he had been cheating on his wife with a party activist.

Mr Sheridan, a self-confessed ladies' man when he was young, free and single, strenuously denied the claims, but sources say that he had been forced to quit as leader by his own party over the way he had handled the rumours.

The rift widened even further after reports that a senior SSP activist had been instrumental in supplying information to the newspaper. Then, at a public meeting to announce temporary arrangements for the party leadership, none of his fellow MSPs would publicly back Mr Sheridan in his legal fight against the newspaper.

The former leader has already issued a writ against the News of The World over the claims and the newspaper has said it will "vigorously defend any legal action". But the failure of the party to publicly back the leader who led the SSP from nowhere to be the fifth-biggest party in Scotland with 60 branches, has infuriated many of the 3,000 or more grassroots supporters, and prompted threats of a vote of no confidence in the party's 22-strong ruling executive.

Whatever the truth about the allegations against Mr Sheridan, he continues to hold a place in the public imagination and party members are unconvinced there is anybody with a strong enough personality to take over who can live up to him, or heal the wounds which have been created.

Until their conference in February, the party's five other MSPs have announced they intend to operate a form of "collective leadership", taking turns to ask questions in the parliamentary chamber, a move ridiculed by opponents.

"Tommy has been disgracefully treated," said one party member yesterday. "He should be reinstated or at the very least asked to stand for election. If he was to stand he would probably get back in with a resounding majority regardless of these allegations about his private life."

Some members believe Mr Sheridan should take a one-year "sabbatical" before he stands again for re-election.

Ex-minister 'started hotel fire'

The sudden resignation of Tommy Sheridan seems to have triggered a fresh interest in political peccadilloes.

Mr Sheridan's alleged extra-curricular activities set a trend. Yesterday, Lord Watson of Invergowrie was accused of setting fire to a pair of curtains.

Otherwise known as the Labour MSP Mike Watson, the former tourism minister is facing a police investigation for allegedly trying to start a hotel fire. Following a Politician of the Year ceremony, a man was seen on a security video at the Prestonfield House Hotel in Edinburgh trying to set light to curtains. Following an investigation, Lord Watson was charged with wilful fire-raising.

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