It’s undoubtedly true that Nicola Sturgeon’s reputation had taken a nosedive recently, and that she had been losing her once iron grip on the SNP. Still, one big decision has remained firmly in her grasp: the timing and nature of her exit.
The announcement of her resignation this morning nevertheless comes as a huge shock. Though debate had begun about her likely eventual replacement, this was a conversation expected to play out over months if not years. Sturgeon has previously proved herself formidably resilient – not least during the Covid crisis and the bruising split with her one-time mentor Alex Salmond. And for all her flaws, she has been the dominant figure in Scotland for the past eight years, and a major player in UK politics.
In her press conference at Bute House today, Sturgeon will set out the reasons for her sudden departure. It is being suggested that she has simply “had enough”, though when the New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern quit recently Sturgeon was quick to say that she still had “plenty in the tank”. Perhaps recent events have changed that.
Whatever your view of the merits of Scottish independence, Sturgeon has been a political superstar. She is charismatic, empathetic, a gifted and convincing public speaker, and had often seemed genuinely trustworthy and straightforward in a generation of politicians among whom these qualities have been rare.
But she had a difficult end to 2022 and has undeniably had a horrible start to 2023. I’ve written for this week’s New Statesman about the many travails currently facing the First Minister, many of them self-inflicted. Chief among these is her ill-considered gender legislation, which has been blocked by the Westminster government, is unpopular with the public, and may still end up in the Supreme Court – although perhaps a new leader will seek to cut their losses on the issue.
The SNP has also become bitterly divided about the most effective path to securing independence. Sturgeon has called a special party conference for March, at which party members will decide whether to go ahead with their resigning leader’s plan to treat the next general election as a “de facto” referendum. Many, including allies of the First Minister, are opposed to the proposal, believing it is bound to fail and will set the cause back by years.
Then there is the growing charge sheet of policy failures – the Scottish government’s new bottle returns scheme is hugely unpopular with business and may be delayed. There are claims that offshore wind contracts were undersold, perhaps by hundreds of millions of pounds. The inability to build new ferries has been an expensive albatross around Sturgeon’s neck. Public services such as education and health have remained steadfastly unreformed.
Who will replace her? The best option, as far as I’m concerned, is the 32-year-old Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, who shares many of Sturgeon’s better characteristics. But Forbes is more of a technocrat, shows greater interest in the detail of policy, is less in hock to the leftist Greens, and would bring the energy of a new generation to government. Alternatively, Stephen Flynn, the new Westminster leader, will fancy his chances, as will some of the old guard such as current Scottish cabinet ministers Keith Brown and Angus Robertson.
Labour, which has already begun discussions about how the Scottish and UK-wide parties might work together in power, will see this as the opportunity for the fundamental electoral change it has been desperate for.
When Sturgeon took over from Salmond the process was smooth and undisputed. This time it’s more likely to resemble an episode of Wacky Races. One thing is clear today, though: for all her gifts and dominance, it will not now be Nicola Sturgeon who leads Scotland to independence, if the country ever decides to take that step.