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16 February 2023

Will Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation impact the SNP’s electoral fortunes?

With enviable approval ratings the First Minister was a formidable opponent – and will be a difficult leader to replace.

By Freddie Hayward

Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation speech was, as our Scotland editor, Chris Deerin, writes “earnest, honest, at times emotional, and often good humoured”. There will now be a prolonged assessment of the First Minister’s legacy. But how will her decision to step down impact the SNP’s electoral fortunes?  

There are those who argue that Sturgeon’s enviable approval ratings, string of election victories and fluent communication made her an unbeatable opponent. Yet there are some critics who say that Sturgeon’s failure to deliver on key promises, such as independence and improving the state of Scotland’s public services, made her vulnerable. Sturgeon’s pursuit of gender recognition reform – and her decision to make it a symbolic fight for independence – damaged her reputation.

Sturgeon’s own assessment is that staying in post had become a hindrance to her party’s electoral chances. In her resignation speech she argued that, after so long in office, the electorate’s perception of her had calcified in a way that limited her ability to convince voters to support the SNP and the independence cause. Sturgeon’s followers loved her, her critics hated her and that was never going to change. With that in mind, the First Minister believed it was best to give her successor the maximum amount of time before the next general election to build a public profile.

[See also: Is Kate Forbes’s SNP leadership campaign over already?]

This may be true. But after eight years as First Minister and seven years before that as deputy first minister, Sturgeon’s approval ratings are still strong – even with their recent dip. Sturgeon has led her party to victory at all six elections she’s faced since she became leader in 2014. Public support for parties generally falls year on year after they enter office. Sturgeon’s own relative popularity has disrupted that trend.

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Sturgeon’s popularity, as Rachel reports, is why Scottish Labour are buoyant at the demise of such a formidable opponent. But much of Labour’s hoped-for breakthrough, specifically winning ten to 20 more Scottish seats at the next general election, will depend on whether Anas Sarwar and Keir Starmer take this opportunity to capitalise on Sturgeon’s exit. Their success could decide whether Starmer runs a majority or minority government.

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