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3 March 2021updated 05 Mar 2021 10:15am

Why Nicola Sturgeon’s opponents are struggling to land a definitive blow on her

The questions posed to the Scottish First Minister have been scattershot and unfocused. 

By Stephen Bush

Nicola Sturgeon is giving evidence to the Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish government’s handling of allegations of sexual harassment against Alex Salmond. 

Semi-related: another part of the Budget has been announced early, this time an increase in the limit for using contactless payment to £100: effectively marking the end of most chip-and-pin transactions in the United Kingdom. 

[Hear more from Stephen on the New Statesman podcast]

Call me overly cynical, but you can see how it is in the government’s interests for today’s Budget to be an uninteresting affair, all the better to keep the eyes of the British media on Holyrood. Don’t forget that the newsbreaks on music radio – those all-important election-deciding clips on BBC Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3, 6 Music, and most commercial radio stations – are decided in England, and that the biggest news stories are about things that happen in England. That the inquiry has failed to land a knockout blow on Sturgeon before Rishi Sunak stands up and starts speaking means the story is unlikely to get a hearing should the inquiry manage to land one after he has finished. 

[see also: After a formidable performance, Alex Salmond may yet have his revenge on Nicola Sturgeon]

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​​​​​​Sturgeon has sought to do two things in her evidence: the first is to set out what she knew and when, in order to rebut claims of collusion or conspiracy at the heart of the Scottish government, and the second is to remind the inquiry, and by extension anyone watching at home, of the wider global context to her actions: the wave of apparent openness and self-reflection on alleged sexual harassment and misconduct in the wake of the #MeToo moment.

Her interlocutors have sought to do… too many things, probably. Is this, first and foremost, an attempt to get to the bottom of the affair in question? Or is it an attempt to do what the SNP’s opponents hoped Alex Salmond’s trial would do, and solve the problem of the SNP for them? As a result, the inquiry’s questions have been scattershot, and the average person following it at a distance will surely leave with no better idea of what is or isn’t going on than they did before. 

[see also: Why the SNP’s opponents aren’t benefiting from the Salmond-Sturgeon feud]

That may not matter if the consequence of the inquiry is that the SNP continues to be publicly and bitterly divided. But the biggest struggle the party’s opponents have is not that they are competing with Sunak for the spotlight today. It’s that the lack of clarity about what they want from this exercise, and the lack of sincerity from some of them, means that, even if they had infinite time and attention, they would likely struggle to land the definitive strike on Sturgeon that they crave.