Nicola Sturgeon announces she is to step down as SNP leader
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Nicola Sturgeon will continue to cast a “long shadow” over Scottish politics despite her resignation as First Minister, with whoever replaces her facing a “tough gig”, pollster Sir John Curtice has warned. And the Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University outlined the future of the independence movement was currently far from clear – warning there were no guarantees her successor would be blessed with the 52-year-old’s political skills.
Ms Sturgeon made her surprise announcement yesterday, confirming she would be stepping down from the post she has occupied over the last eight years, and saying the time was “right for me, for my party and my country”.
She also insisted her decision was unrelated to the rumbling row over transgender rights, and particularly the gender recognition bill, which she forced through the Scottish Parliament in the face of significant political opposition.
But with support for independence stubbornly hovering around 49 percent, and with the job having taken an “emotional, physical and psychological toll”, Sir John said it was nevertheless clear the 52-year-old had concluded she had simply “run out of road”.
He told Express.co.uk: “I think she’s going she’s going for two interrelated reasons. One is purely personal, which is she’s run out of nervous energy.
“There was always a question mark in many of our minds as to whether or not, once the pandemic was over, she would want to carry on and she has done for a while.
“But the emotional, physical and psychological toll of running the country through that, given she was front and centre in all of it, was always bound to be quite substantial.”
Referring to the SNP’s failure to clinch 65 seats in the Holyrood elections of 2021, Sir John continued: “The other thing is not really the failure to get the majority in 2021, because if she had got one, I still think the UK Government would have said no to a referendum, like Cameron did in 2011.
“I think the difficult bit is that she was no longer clearly in control of her party’s strategy on how independence should be pursued, in particular the unease about fighting the next Westminster election as a de facto referendum.”
Ms Sturgeon had acknowledged that while she would probably have won the vote on the question at the party conference in March had she remained as leader, she “may not win the argument”, Sir John said.
He added: “In other words she would be leading a somewhat reluctant party down this path and given that she wasn’t clear that she wanted to lead this party anymore at the time if the next Westminster election you put those two things together, I think this is where the personal and the political coincide.
“She’s found her party is not necessarily wanting to go where she wanted to go on the next stage in the attempt to secure independence.”
Sir John said: “She decided she’d run out of road. Her other argument was that she doubted her ability to increase support above the 48-49 percent level where it is at the moment, that she felt that perhaps she’s become too divisive.
“I’m not sure she’s right about this but certainly what is true is that while there have been spells in the last three years, most notably during the second half of 2020, early 2021, when support for independence was well and truly above 50 percent, that dissipated by the time we got into 2021 and the vaccine rollout happened, and that’s one of the UK government’s great successes.”
November’s Supreme Court judgement, which blocked Ms Sturgeon’s bid to stage a referendum next year, had briefly produced a “bubble of support” but the trend was already downwards, Sir John said.
He added: “Support for independence seems, when you ignore temporary fluctuations, to be stuck at what for the nationalist is the tantalisingly frustrating level of around 48-49 percent.”
Acknowledging Ms Sturgeon would “cast a long shadow” over her party, and Scottish politics in general, Sir John said: “She has made it clear that she is still going to remain an MSP as a backbencher, and is also indicating she’s probably going to be available to campaign for independence.
“So her interventions at FMQs, and on other occasions, will certainly be watched and noticed.
“And doubtless the kremlinologists will be trying to work out whether there is sandpaper’s worth of difference between what she’s saying and what her successor is saying, that’s almost inevitable in these situations.”
Among the potential successors include finance minister Kate Forbes, Ms Sturgeon’s current deputy John Swinney, and Angus Robertson, who previously headed the SNP’s Westminster group, and who all – publicly at least – have avoided any criticism of her leadership, Sir John pointed out.
With specific reference to whoever replaces her, Sir John warned: “It’s a difficult gig because you’ve got a party that’s divided over central strategy.
‘It’s got itself on the wrong side of public opinion on gender recognition and additionally, and this is true across the UK, recreating good public services is very, very difficult. Y
“The health service up here is in more or less in as much trouble as it is south of the border and that is a big, long, hard, difficult slog.
“There are essentially two jobs. There is one job as First Minister, which is to run a competent, effective government that deals with some of the very difficult issues that public services face in Scotland and the fiscal limitations that the Scottish government faces.
“And secondly, to be an effective party leader and leader of the independence movement, and trying to move the dial on support for independence.”
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