It was just last month that Nicola Sturgeon told Laura Kuenssberg she had “plenty left in the tank” and was “nowhere near” ready to quit as Scotland’s First Minister. Her announcement this morning was a genuine surprise that almost nobody saw coming – at least not yet. Yes, it is true that Sturgeon has been having an unusually tough time politically of late – and also true that over the past 12 months ‘life after Sturgeon’ has come to be a more frequent topic of conversation among the Scottish commentariat. Nevertheless, the abrupt nature of this announcement has caught everyone off guard.
Although leader of Scotland, Sturgeon has been a figure of real UK-wide significance throughout her 8+ year tenure as First Minister. She was the first SNP leader to take part in a UK General Election leaders debates in 2015 and has been a fixture on the UK political stage ever since. She has led her party through three Westminster elections and two Holyrood elections, remaining comfortably the largest party in each contest. Even as her personal and party poll ratings have taken a small hit recently; the SNP remains the dominant force in Scottish politics by a distance. And as long as the SNP remain the dominant force in Scottish politics, there will always be question marks over the stability of the Union and the prospects for another referendum on secession.
So, what does Sturgeon’s departure mean for the future of Scottish and UK politics?
The first thing to say is that the SNP will not find it easy to find another leader with Nicola Sturgeon’s political experience, skill and profile. When she herself took office as First Minister, it was after a 10-year spell as Deputy Leader to Alex Salmond, in which a clear succession plan had been in place. There is no such obvious successor right now, and recent polling shows the public in Scotland overwhelmingly “don’t know” who should be the next SNP leader. The party has become increasingly fractious, with the debate over the Gender Recognition Reform Bill proving particularly contentious. There are also real differences of opinion over the correct strategy for pursuing independence and whether the next UK General Election should be a “de facto referendum” on the matter. All of this points to a potentially heated leadership contest in which there could be a wide field of candidates and a less unified party emerging.
If the SNP does retreat into a period of introspection and even infighting, this is likely to be good news for their Unionist opponents. Scottish Labour, already rallying under Anas Sarwar’s leadership, will be buoyed by this news and will feel that their prospects in many of their former heartlands in the central belt have been boosted. Douglas Ross and the Scottish Conservatives will likewise sense an opportunity in SNP-Tory battlegrounds, for instance in the North East. It may be time to start engaging seriously with the opposition in Scotland again.
If – and it remains a big if – the SNP do lose significant ground at the next General Election, the opportunity to regain a stronghold in Scotland would be a major help to Keir Starmer’s prospects of becoming Prime Minister. This in turn would put a dent in prospects for another independence referendum, with the SNP deprived of one of their most potent lines of attack – that Scotland must vote for independence to escape permanent Tory rule at Westminster.
Sturgeon’s resignation follows clashes with the UK Government over the Scottish Parliament’s Gender Recognition Reform and its impact on UK-wide equalities legislation, which saw the UK Government invoking Section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 for the first time. Sturgeon hoped that this unprecedented stance from the UK Government in vetoing devolved legislation was further evidence of Westminster’s disregard for Scotland and would fuel support for independence. However, recent polling by the Sunday Times and YouGov suggests otherwise.
Who are the frontrunners to succeed Sturgeon?
As noted above, there is no single natural successor to the First Minister.
The Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, has been spoken of as a future leader, but at 32 there will be question marks over her experience levels. She is currently on maternity leave, so the timeline for the leadership election will also be crucial to her prospects as she may be forced to return earlier than planned if she chooses to run.
The former SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson, now a Cabinet Secretary in the Scottish Government, is another likely candidate who may be seen as having sufficient experience and standing within the party to bring different factions together. Deputy First Minister John Swinney, himself a former leader of the party, could be another ‘safe pair of hands’ option, but he was not a successful leader first time around and that could count against him. Scottish Health Secretary Humza Yousaf has long been mentioned as a party rising star, but difficulties in the NHS may be a significant obstacle to overcome.
Less well-known figures from the newer generation of SNP MSPs such as Mairi McAllan and Neil Gray could also throw their hats into the ring. Wesminster MP Joanna Cherry has previously talked of running but is significantly hampered by not being an MSP and is also out of step with the current leadership on gender recognition reform.
Overall, it is clear that the SNP is entering the most uncertain period in its recent history. That in turn may actually strengthen the political stability of the UK as a whole.
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