Lindsay Razaq: This is SNP MP Ian Blackford’s moment – but Nicola Sturgeon still calls the shots

Ian Blackford is the new Westminster leader of the SNP (Sandy McCook / Press & Journal)
Ian Blackford is the new Westminster leader of the SNP (Sandy McCook / Press & Journal)

AS the new 35-strong group of SNP MPs gathered in Parliament Square for a photo with Nicola Sturgeon, Ian Blackford positioned himself front and centre.

A statement of intent surely by a man confident of success?

In contrast, Tommy Sheppard – who ended up withdrawing from the party’s Westminster leadership contest – was on the very edge.

I didn’t see Joanna Cherry and at that stage there were no whisperings about Drew Hendry’s intention to stand.

From the off, the Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP was the frontrunner so his win did not come as a surprise. Nonetheless, it was a hugely significant moment, representing a changing of the guard.

As well as Angus Robertson, Mike Weir and Eilidh Whiteford also fell victim to the Tory revival in Scotland at the general election.

It means that only three of the six SNP MPs who pre-dated the party’s 2015 surge remain – Angus MacNeil, Pete Wishart and Stewart Hosie, who has been replaced as deputy Westminster leader by Kirsty Blackman.

Former investment banker Mr Blackford is undoubtedly popular with colleagues, but outside Westminster circles he’s relatively unknown.

And in taking over the mantle from Mr Robertson, who had held the post for 10 years, he has big shoes to fill.

The former Moray MP had become an expert interrogator at Prime Minister’s Questions in the two years since the SNP secured a weekly slot as the third largest party in the Commons.

It’s telling that Theresa May was apparently happier to see Mr Robertson – a constant thorn in her side – ousted than Alex Salmond.

But despite being diminished in size, the hung parliament result means there’s now potentially a greater opportunity for the group to shape the course of events, particularly in relation to Brexit.

That is certainly a chance Mr Blackford will be keen and ready to seize.

Not backwards in coming forwards, he has made his mark in the past two years as the party’s pensions spokesman.

He also has deep roots within the party and his return to the hierarchy is a long time coming, having been suspended as treasurer in 2000 after a clash with Mr Salmond, reportedly over his attempts to impose tougher spending controls.

Although he has since referred to the episode as “water under the bridge”, it does suggest he’s “not a pushover”, as one supporter put it in the run-up to the internal vote.

This trait was further underlined by Mr Blackford’s description within hours of being elected of a second independence referendum as an “insurance policy” against Scotland’s future being impacted by a hard Tory Brexit.

But whatever his personal views on the best way forward and however strong they are, the First Minister will call the shots.

While Mr Blackford seems more unpredictable than his predecessor, ultimately the decisions and direction of travel will come from Edinburgh.