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15 February 2023

Nicola Sturgeon is running out of time – and her rivals know it

As the First Minister’s popularity declines, her grip on her party and the country is slipping.

By Chris Deerin

Note: This article, which also appears in the print edition of the New Statesman, was published before Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation as Scotland’s First Minister on 15 February. For Chris Deerin’s response to the news, see “What is behind the fall of Nicola Sturgeon?”.

Nicola Sturgeon has had a miserable start to 2023, to the point where her future is being openly discussed in SNP circles. While few argue that a tipping point has been reached or that Sturgeon’s job is at immediate risk, she has lost the grip on her party she has enjoyed since 2014. “I don’t think anyone’s going to challenge her or try to force her out, but her critics undeniably have a point,” says one SNP source. “They’re hardly short of ammunition.”

The Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Bill – which would make it easier for people to legally change their gender, and reducing the age at which they can do so from 18 to 16 – that Sturgeon personally championed has gone down badly. It has split her administration, her party and the broader independence movement. The bill has been blocked by the UK government through a Section 35 order – the first time in the history of devolution – due to concerns it would affect British equalities legislation.

But worse for Sturgeon is that she finds herself on the wrong side of public opinion, which has not been a common occurrence. Polls have shown that a majority of Scots are against the bill and its measures; almost a third of SNP supporters believe the British government was right to intervene. Her personal approval ratings have dropped, as has electoral support for the SNP and for independence. This led Alex Salmond, her predecessor, to issue a withering attack on his former protégé: “Thirty years of gradually building, building, building till we get independence over 50 per cent and then thrown away with some self-indulgent nonsense… [is] hardly… the most astute manoeuvre when we’re meant to be taking Scotland to its next date with destiny.”

That date with destiny is another of Sturgeon’s problems. She has spent her leadership relentlessly pushing for a second referendum on independence, and had even named 19 October this year as the date on which she intended to stage it. But that was thwarted by the Supreme Court’s ruling last November that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to hold one without Westminster’s authority. A furious Sturgeon insisted instead that the next general election would be a “de facto” referendum. If pro-independence parties received more than 50 per cent of the vote, her government would begin separation negotiations with its UK counterpart.

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As a viable strategy for securing her movement’s goal, this was widely dismissed as desperate and unconvincing. Downing Street would be under no obligation to accept the vote as a mandate, and anyway, even at the height of its modern popularity the SNP failed to breach the 50 per cent target. Allies of the First Minister, including the SNP MP Stewart McDonald – who published a pamphlet this month against the de facto plan – warned it could set back the independence movement by years. Voters would not take kindly to being told that they were expected to vote on a single constitutional issue, especially during a cost-of-living crisis and an NHS emergency.

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[See also: Nicola Sturgeon is the author of her own misfortune]

Polls confirm this to be the public’s view. A Michael Ashcroft survey of more than 2,000 Scots found that only 44 per cent of those who voted SNP in 2019 supported the plan, with 48 per cent against. Across the general public, just 21 per cent were in favour, with 67 per cent opposed. Backing for independence has dropped from its recent 50-plus level: No is once again ahead (56 per cent to Yes’s 44 per cent), close to the 55-45 result of the 2014 referendum.

Sturgeon has called a party conference in Edinburgh on 19 March to determine policy on securing independence. She insists she is still committed to her de facto proposal, but the conference is being seen as an opportunity for her to back down and limit the damage to her reputation. The mantra is that “the party will decide”, but given how controlling Sturgeon has been of policy and messaging in her time as leader, this is a clear admission of weakness.

Similarly, Ian Blackford, the former SNP leader at Westminster and a Sturgeon loyalist, was ousted late last year by Stephen Flynn, who acted without seeking the First Minister’s permission. Flynn is one of those tipped to succeed Sturgeon should she be forced out or resign. Another contender is Kate Forbes, the talented finance secretary currently on maternity leave, who is also understood to oppose the gender reforms.

Policy errors – from an unpopular new bottle returns scheme to claims that contracts for providing offshore wind have been undersold by millions of pounds – are piling up. As a consequence, Scottish Labour is increasingly optimistic. The party voted with the SNP in support of the gender bill, but senior figures believe the electorate will blame Sturgeon for its controversy.

Though the gap between the SNP and other parties remains large, Labour hopes to win around 15 Scottish seats at the next general election. This would then be used as a platform for a challenge to the SNP at the next Holyrood election in 2026. The message would be that after years of strife between SNP Holyrood and Tory Westminster, Scotland could have Labour administrations in both parliaments.

There is a great deal of ruin in the SNP, such is its dominance. But opposition parties believe Sturgeon is doing their work for them, and that it will be difficult for the First Minister to restore public opinion in her favour. If this is truly a turning point for Scottish democracy, then, as Ernest Hemingway said of bankruptcy, it has happened gradually and suddenly.

[Read more: Why Nicola Sturgeon was destined for failure]

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This article appears in the 15 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why the right is losing everywhere