How the spectre of Alex Salmond haunts Nicola Sturgeon's fractious SNP

The SNP remains an impressive beast, but there are fights ahead – sometimes even with other parties.

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Theresa May’s Manchester meltdown provided plenty of entertainment for civilian Twitter, but the response from her fellow politicians was tonally different: a wince rather than a cackle. Not so much lmao, perhaps, as omfg. Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader whose own party conference begins in Glasgow on Sunday, tweeted: “Spare a thought for those of us still to deliver our conference speech and now fretting about all the things that could go wrong [horror emoji]‪”.

On the surface, the gathering of the Nats couldn’t be more different to the Tories’ geriatric doomathon. The conference is likely to be packed out – the SNP’s membership of around 100,000 puts the UK parties, which fish in a much larger pool, to shame.

Sturgeon’s position as leader and First Minister is secure at least until 2021, when the next Holyrood elections are held. A poll this weekend put the party on course to win that election, which would deliver a fourth consecutive term of office. Peter Murrell, Sturgeon’s husband and the SNP’s chief executive, tweeted yesterday, “5 years ago, ‪@theSNP lead over second placed party in ‪@YouGov was 3 points, in today’s poll it’s 17 points. Remarkable!” 

Scottish Labour are in the middle of changing leader (again) and the main opposition is provided by Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Tories, a state of affairs that suits the Nats just fine.

So there will be much for the faithful to cheer, and plenty to throw back at those who insist the SNP is on the way down and out. But still – if you know where to look, the signs of decline are hard to miss.

First, that poll. Between August last year and now, Sturgeon’s approval rating has slipped from +20 to zero, while Davidson’s has gone from +21 to +17. Jeremy Corbyn’s personal rating, like elsewhere in the UK, has undergone a revolution, vaulting from -42 to +20.

The days when the First Minister walked on electoral water are behind her, and the opposition has three more years to pound away at her and her government’s reputations. The Scottish parliament is also on course to lose its pro-independence majority, with the SNP predicted to emerge with 57 seats (down six) and their pro-separation buddies the Greens down from six to four, making a total of 61.

Between them, the Unionist parties (Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems) would have 68 seats. It looks increasingly likely, due to hostile public opinion and resistance from Westminster, that Sturgeon will be unable to call a referendum before 2021, and that she will be in no position to do so after that.

Neither is the SNP the unified force it was in the immediate pre- and post-referendum era. Its Westminster grouping of 35 MPs has become divided since June’s general election, when Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson, the party’s two biggest figures in the Commons, lost their seats. There is a faction, led by Joanna Cherry, the MP for Edinburgh South West, that retains loyalty to and continues to take its lead and methods from Salmond; and there is another that is fully behind the new Commons leader, Ian Blackford, MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, and that wants to develop new arguments and policies and move on from the aggressive chest-thumping and fantastical promises of the past. It’s not entirely clear how this mild civil war ends.

This is not just the case at Westminster – one senior minister in the Holyrood cabinet regularly refers to Salmond as “the fat fuck”. Relations between Sturgeon and her predecessor are said to be in deep freeze. Salmond shows no sign of going quietly, however, having recently taken on a three-hour weekly radio show on LBC and unveiled plans to take his one-man Edinburgh fringe show on tour across Scotland.

Meanwhile, there are questions about Sturgeon’s leadership and judgment. Her demand for a second independence referendum following the UK’s vote for Brexit was met with ill temper by a weary electorate, and contributed to the SNP’s loss of 21 MPs and half a million votes in June. She has yet to regain her political balance, leading to dissent in the party the like of which has not been seen for many years.

Jim Sillars, a former deputy leader, wrote an article in Friday’s Daily Record criticising the First Minister’s "unhinged love that paints the EU in glorious colours", and the "error-strewn course taken by leaders with no strategic nous, out of their depth". He also criticised the way Brussels has treated weaker member states as well as Scotland’s fishing communities and rural and island services.

Sillars warned that an independent Scotland would not immediately be granted EU membership: "As long as the EU are there, denying Scots membership, we have fatal uncertainty injected into our debate. Politics, like war, is best fought on one front. We cannot win against the combination of Westminster and Brussels. We can win against Westminster alone."

The current SNP leadership’s Europhilia may be paying short-term benefits, thanks to the muddle of the Brexit negotiations, but Sillars has rightly identified danger further down the line. I expect, in time, the party will have to commit to a post-independence referendum on Scotland’s future relationship with the EU, so removing a complexity that is often used to undermine their separatist case.

Battle-scarred and weather-worn as it is, the SNP remains an impressive beast. In Glasgow this week it will undoubtedly display an energy and passion that far surpasses anything shown by the Tories in Manchester. But the wounds are there, all the same, and there are a lot more fights ahead. Some of them will even be with the other parties.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).