Can Nicola Sturgeon survive the coming onslaught over her handling of the Alex Salmond scandal? Regardless of the hopes entertained by her political opponents and her internal critics – united in panting expectation – the answer is almost certainly yes.
Pandemonium broke loose when news emerged on Thursday evening (18 March) that the Holyrood committee investigating the affair found the First Minister misled them when giving evidence. There were calls for her immediate resignation from the kind of people who would call for her immediate resignation. She was defended by the kind of people who would defend her. Twitter, made for moments like this, was apoplectic and on full meme duty.
Only, certain key facts remain stubbornly unclear. Has the committee found she “knowingly” misled it, which is the requirement in the ministerial code of conduct for resignation? Or is it all a muddle rather than a fiddle, at least as far as can be proved? And what authority and moral weight does the committee have when its opposition members and its SNP members disagree on the finding? Who leaked the news and to what end – and what does that say about the integrity of those involved?
It seems more likely that Sturgeon, Salmond and the committee members are fighting themselves to a score draw. Much of the matters at stake rely on “he said/she said” evidence, which is somewhat ironic given the nature of the charges Salmond originally faced and of which he was acquitted. This does not lend itself to establishing clear fact.
We still await the independent investigation by the QC James Hamilton into whether Sturgeon broke the ministerial code, which may be a greater challenge for the First Minister. But at this stage it feels likely that muddle rather than fiddle will be the overall judgment.
Which is not to say that Sturgeon has behaved well or emerges without a stain on her reputation. The government and party she leads have been secretive, obstructive and downright unimpressive throughout. Her claimed memory losses at times stretch the credulity of even the most fair-minded. And the sense that her administration has grown arrogant, complacent and overmighty will be deservedly hard to shift.
But – while acknowledging that political predictions have proved an unstable undertaking in recent years – it is surely as close as it can be to a sure thing that Sturgeon will survive to lead her party into May’s devolved election. The proximity of that election alone means the SNP will fight ferociously to prevent the fall of their frontwoman – it would be disastrous to its chances of winning, and of securing a mandate for a second independence referendum. Even her fiercest internal critics are likely to fall into line once the campaign proper begins.
And, to be honest, it still rankles that the only sanction from this tawdry and upsetting episode could be the resignation of the woman who was given no choice but to deal with it – with all the uncomfortable decisions, broken friendships and personal trauma it has entailed. Sturgeon would not be the first woman to find that the #MeToo moment has backfired on her, and that is something that should concern us all.
If they cannot secure her departure, the opposition parties still have the opportunity to hold the First Minister accountable. For the past year especially, Sturgeon has traded on her personal integrity as she has led Scotland through the Covid-19 pandemic. Her personal trust ratings have been astronomically high, and the empathy and directness she has shown have been apposite to the moment. She remains the independence movement’s best hope.
At the very least, the Salmond inquiry has raised doubts about that integrity. Put to the test by the Salmond scandal, it has wobbled if nothing else. Voters can see this, and in recent weeks support for the SNP and for independence has dropped slightly in the polls. This appears to be a trend that may yet have some distance to run.
The numbers currently suggest that even if the SNP fails to get an overall majority, its partners-in-separatism the Greens will win enough seats to establish a combined pro-independence mandate. This is surely where the Conservatives and Labour should be targeting their efforts – chipping away at the SNP dominance by highlighting the prospect of a tarnished First Minister leading an ageing government into a promised period of even more upheaval.
Sturgeon isn’t about to resign, but it seems unlikely she would survive the failure to secure that pro-independence majority and losing the prospect of a second indyref, especially given the civil war in her own party. The assault on her integrity may yet produce the unionists’ desired result, but it will only come once the voters have had their say.
[See also: Our Scottish election poll tracker]