AFTER more than five years leading the SNP at Westminster, there’s one issue for which Ian Blackford is particularly keen to set the record straight on.

He says there is “not even a semblance of truth” in the idea that he was friends with Boris Johnson – and only recently found out it was actually a rumour started by the prime minister himself.

“Let me just squash one thing completely – this idea that Boris Johnson and myself were pals,” he said.

“[Johnson] kind of looked at me the other week and said it took me three years to come to terms with you, and then we knew what to do.

“That was when he started saying that ‘Ian and I are friends’ and I found out it was one of his special advisers that told him to do that. So that is where it came from.”

The National: Ian Blackford has dismissed rumours he was friends with Boris JohnsonIan Blackford has dismissed rumours he was friends with Boris Johnson (Image: Newsquest)

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday National as he prepares to step down from his role as SNP Westminster leader this week, Blackford says quitting has been a big decision to make and it comes with a “range of emotions”.

But he is clearly happy to no longer be facing spending quite so much time at Westminster, especially when it involves a long commute from the Isle of Skye.

He discussed his decision to quit with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon last Wednesday, with plans for the news to be announced on Friday while he was at home on the island.

After the news began to leak out, a statement was instead hastily released on Thursday announcing he had chosen to step down.

The reason given was that “now is the right time for fresh leadership at Westminster”, but it was widely reported that he chose to “jump before he was pushed” ahead of a looming challenge from Aberdeen South MP Stephen Flynn – though Alison Thewliss is the first MP to formally throw her hat in the ring.

The National: Ian Blackford has announced he will step down as the SNP's Westminster leaderIan Blackford has announced he will step down as the SNP's Westminster leader (Image: Newsquest)

Responding to those claims, Blackford said: “I’ve taken the decision that I was going to stand down and I’ll continue to reflect on that over the course of the while.

“I would be happy that if I had put myself forward for election this week, I would be appealing to the members to support me.

“I stood for election in 2017, 2018, 2019, stood again in 2019 after the election, 2020 and 2021, so I put myself forward for re-election many times and I hope I would have been able to appeal to colleagues to allow me to continue in that role.

“But look, that is not going to happen and I think the key thing is whoever is elected as the leader of the SNP group, whoever it is, will have my full support and make sure we are driving this forward.”

It might have been a turbulent week in politics for Blackford, but that’s nothing new after years of having a front-row seat at Westminster during times which have included the chaos of Brexit and four Tory prime ministers.

When it comes to the highlights, he chooses the 2019 election when the SNP increased their representation from 35 to 48 MPs.

But he says one of the most memorable occasions was when he was ejected from the Commons and SNP MPs walked out en masse in 2018 protesting over a lack of debate on devolved issues in key Brexit legislation.

“That was on the basis of Westminster taking powers back from the Scottish Parliament, when they disgracefully rammed through that legislation on a Tuesday evening on third reading without ability for the SNP to properly participate in the debate,” Blackford said.

“That night I spoke to three people – I spoke to the First Minister, my wife who has been a long-term feisty campaigner for independence, and Mike Russell.

“Mike Russell was very much encouraging me to make sure I could stand up properly for the movement at Prime Minister’s Questions the following day, he was quite energised about that and I was pleased to get that encouragement.

“The First Minister simply told me I had to do something – and my wife said: ‘if you don’t do something, don’t come home,’ and put the phone down.”

Blackford said the walkout was not widely discussed with the group of SNP MPs, and took place after he received a text message from Sturgeon saying “go for it”.

“When I got chucked out, I thought, ‘retain some dignity as you come out of the Chamber’. I think it was only when I got to the second door that I glanced round and saw the group was behind me,” he said.

“That wasn’t planned – that was a spontaneous gesture. So I think that was a wonderful moment, with that sense of purpose of the group. And over the course of the next 24 hours, the SNP put on 10,000 members, so you can see the importance of that.”

Blackford acknowledges there are some who believe the SNP should be more disruptive in Parliament, saying: “I kind of get that.”.

But he added: “We’ve got to do it in a way that’s structured, that has a sense of purpose to it. And actually it’s not that easy to do it with the rules there are in Westminster.

“We also have to remember when we’re doing that, there’s no point in engaging in stunts for the sake of them, there has to be a real reason for doing it.”

On the subject of the four Tory leaders he has sparred with at Prime Minister’s Questions, he says they have all been similar in their inability to understand Scotland.

The first was Theresa May, who was nicknamed the “Maybot” during her time in Number 10.

Blackford said: “The interesting thing is that we knew whatever questions we asked, I think Theresa May had about five variations on a theme of answers she would give that in many cases had nothing to do with the question that we put down.”

However, he said while he disagrees “vehemently” with her politics, she did have respect for opposition leaders and the role they had to play.

He is far more critical of Boris Johnson, who he said had “besmirched” the office of prime minister and showed “utter disrespect” to the UK Parliament, all devolved administrations and opposition parties.

“I’m delighted that he has gone, I bear him no personal animosity but I think the way he behaved in office was absolutely shameful,” he said.

“Other journalists would often say, ‘is he not the best thing that could happen to the SNP?’ Of course, we have to contrast how Westminster behaves and how Westminster treats Scotland.

“But we will win independence because people have that faith, that belief in what Scotland will achieve – not because of who is in the office of prime minister in Number 10.”

After Johnson’s departure, there was of course the short-lived premiership of Liz Truss – which Blackford said should not have happened and described as a “financial experiment that has cost people dearly”.

When it comes to the most jaw-dropping moment during his leadership at Westminster, he said it was listening to Kwasi Kwarteng deliver his doomed “mini-Budget”.

“I was just a few feet across from him sitting next to Alison Thewliss, our Treasury spokesperson, in utter disbelief at what he was doing. I simply could not believe he was driving the bus off the cliff, but my goodness, we saw the financial markets crashing and the Bank of England having to intervene,”

he said. “That was an extraordinary moment.”

On the last prime minister he faced at Prime Minister’s Questions, Blackford said Rishi Sunak lacks empathy for ordinary people.

“Again, I think a lot of this comes back to the institution and the way Tories behave,” he said.

“The way I would explain that is we talk about social security – they talk about welfare.”

Reflecting on how politics has changed since he took on his Westminster role in June 2017, he said Johnson’s time as prime minister has made it “much more toxic”.

“I’m more worried in a general sense that our political discourse has really deteriorated badly over the course of the past five years, it has been happening for some time,” he said.

“Every politician, every journalist, perhaps many people in public life are regularly abused. I do think we have to stop and think very carefully about where we are.

“We want to engage robustly with our Unionist opponents, but we should do that respectfully.

“I’m worried about what has happened to the environment, but I have to say I think Boris Johnson has contributed to a large extent to what had happened. He seemed to almost celebrate it.”

He added: “Every MP has had death threats, I never make an issue about myself, but two people have been convicted of threatening [me].

“One got a prison sentence, one got a suspended sentence. But that is just an example of what many people will face.”

Blackford will remain as SNP Westminster leader until Tuesday, when his successor will be appointed at the SNP’s AGM.

READ MORE: Alison Thewliss announces she will run to be the SNP's Westminster leader

He now plans to spend more time in Scotland after taking on a “dream” role as a business ambassador for the independence campaign, as well as continuing his duties as MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber.

He says Scotland is “so close” to independence, but cautions that while every supporter is impatient to see it happen, the key will be building support and bringing over undecided voters.

When it comes to offering any advice to his successor, Blackford said: “I would say remember the responsibility they’ve got, to the party, to the movement, to act in an appropriate manner, to be their own person – but in doing so remember they are part of a team and remember they are there to work with and support the Scottish Government and the First Minister.

“But most importantly, really keep that focus on the reason we’re there – and that’s to make sure we deliver independence and make sure we’re out of that place as quickly as possible.”