19 March 2021

Is this the moment the SNP starts to lose its grip?

By

Covering the Alex Salmond/Nicola Sturgeon scandal feels like being a reporter tasked with covering a match between two teams for whom one has little sympathy in a slow-moving, slightly arcane sport for which one is not an enthusiast.

The First Minister dials the sanctimony up to 11 even as her government engages in an ever more obvious and cack-handed cover-up. Her predecessor, despite having been cleared of criminal charges, is an unpleasant man who in the name of revenge is clearly happy to poison the well of Scottish politics.

Moreover, the scandal itself plays out across multiple fronts. There is the killer question of when Sturgeon knew about the investigation of Salmond. More about the role the SNP played in the process. More still about why the Scottish Government defied and indeed misled its lawyers to fight a doomed legal rearguard against Salmond that cost the taxpayer more than half a million pounds.

Nonetheless, even those of us who have no idea about the precise mechanics of what’s unfolding on the pitch can generally recognise dramatic moments. And last night we might have witnessed just such a moment. The Holyrood inquiry which has been investigating the Scottish Government’s gross mishandling of the complaints against Salmond has concluded that Sturgeon misled it.

Or at least, that was the word. At the time of writing, some commentators are suggesting that the leaking of the result may actually be tipping the swing vote, held by Green-turned-Independent MSP Andy Wightman, the other way. The fine unionist tradition of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity is alive and well.

Even so, a worse-than-expected report from the committee is still bad news for Sturgeon. Polls suggest that the public strongly believe that she should resign if she is found to have misled the Scottish Parliament. It also makes it more likely that the parallel inquiry by James Hamilton (which she has also stalled) into a potential breach of the ministerial code might also be more damaging than anticipated.

None of this seems likely, at this point, to bring the First Minister down. She still commands the loyal support of most of the Nationalist movement and her MSPs, and it would take something truly cataclysmic to force her separatist foederati, the Greens, to vote with the pro-UK parties in a vote of no confidence.

By stringing things out until the cusp of the Holyrood elections, Sturgeon can swerve calls to resign by insisting that the Scottish electorate will soon have the chance to judge her directly. And despite polls suggesting a weakening of the SNP’s position, their falling short of dizzying expectations should not occlude the fact that they remain on track to be the dominant party in the next parliament – one which is likely, with the Greens, to contain a separatist majority.

But perceptions matter. If the SNP are perceived to have under-performed, especially with support for independence waning in the polls, it will make it that much easier for the Prime Minister to hold fast to his wise strategy of refusing the Nationalists the second referendum they crave.

Without the prospect of an imminent vote to hold them together, the SNP will have space to give full vent to the divisions that are already seeing the party break out into open warfare. Sturgeon will have to face down that wing of the movement which wants to push for independence at any cost. Her government will have to continue to own its dire record on bread-and-butter issues.

All of which suggest that the First Minister, who has already been in post for seven years, is unlikely to lead the SNP long enough to press for another referendum if the Government can stave one off until at least after the next general election. And she remains, for now, an irreplaceable asset to the separatist cause.

There are bigger questions raised by the whole fiasco, not least about the structure of the devolutionary state. But those are long-term considerations, and the Government won’t want to poke that hornets’ nest until the Holyrood elections are safely past.

For now, this remains a question of brute politics. And from the stands, taking in the mood of the spectators and the grim faces of the players, it looks as if this interminable match might just be where a long-dominant team starts to lose its grip.

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Henry Hill is News Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.