EDINBURGH’S SNP group leader Sandy Howat is facing an internal challenge for his job.
Fellow Nationalist councillor Gavin Barrie, currently the city’s licensing leader, will mount a bid to take over the reins from Cllr Howat at the annual general meeting of the 17-strong group next month.
If he succeeds, Cllr Barrie will lead the SNP into next year’s city council elections against its current coalition partners Labour.
And with the Nationalists expected to emerge as the biggest party, he would be in pole position to succeed Labour’s Andrew Burns as council leader.
Cllr Barrie narrowly lost out to Cllr Howat last year after Steve Cardownie stepped down as leader. The outcome this time is said once more to be on a knife-edge.
One source said: “It looks like Sandy could be OK by one vote, but it obviously depends if anyone changes their mind.”
The SNP has been the junior partner in the coalition with Labour since the last council elections in 2012.
It is understood there have been complaints within the group about Cllr Howat’s style of leadership, but that a change at the top would not necessarily lead to any shift on key policies.
Cllr Barrie, a former firefighter and Fire Brigades Union official, was elected to the council in 2011, representing Inverleith ward. He chairs the licensing sub-committee, which is in charge of licensing taxis, takeaways, parades and gala days.
Last year, Cllr Cardownie quit as group leader and planned a “job swap” in which Cllr Barrie would succeed him at the helm and he would replace Cllr Barrie as chair of the council’s regulatory committee.
However, Cllr Howat managed to secure more support from within the group and beat Cllr Barrie by nine votes to eight.
Cllr Howat – who was elected to the council in 2011, beating former Liberal Democrat council leader Jenny Dawe in Meadows/Morningside ward – is a former financial consultant and once stood against SNP legend Winnie Ewing for the party presidency. After his victory last year he promised to make the SNP a more assertive partner within the coalition, saying the party had been guilty of allowing itself to play a junior role to the larger Labour grouping because of a fear of “upsetting the applecart” in the run-up to the independence referendum.
As deputy council leader, he distanced himself from Cllr Burns’ controversial “shotgun to the head” claim last month about the Scottish Government’s attitude to councils.
But he did say there was “frustration” at local authorities’ lack of “autonomy”.
He added: “We would like to have more flexibility and control over how we raise revenue. It’s a debate that needs to happen quickly. The relationship between the government and councils desperately needs to be changed.”