Whoever replaces Nicola Sturgeon will have to keep one eye on her new seat on Holyrood’s backbenches

15 February 2023, 21:52

LBC's Scotland political editor Gina Davidson
LBC's Scotland political editor Gina Davidson. Picture: LBC
Gina Davidson

By Gina Davidson

"If I ever reach the point which she has clearly reached, where I just think overall I can’t give the job everything it deserves, then I hope I have the same courage she has had in saying ‘Okay, this is the point to go’.

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"But just for the avoidance of all doubt, I don’t feel anywhere near that right now, nowhere near.”

Those were the words of Nicola Sturgeon just three weeks ago in the wake of the resignation of New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern.

Today, Scotland’s First Minister quit.

In an announcement which took everyone by surprise, she said she had now reached that particular point and was stepping down.

It is hard to describe the political earthquake her decision has caused across Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon has been the longest serving First Minister since devolution, she has led a party which has bulldozed all others in its way to electoral success after electoral success. She appeared unassailable both within and outwith the SNP.

Yet she has gone. Or will go when a successor is elected. Which all begs the question: why now?

In her resignation speech she rejected any suggestion that it was because of “short term pressures”, rather it was the toll which had been taken on her and her wider family of being so long in the political spotlight; there is no privacy in the brutal world of high level politics.

But can we take her word for that given that just days ago her word was that she felt “nowhere near” resignation?

Read more: 'Privilege of my life': Nicola Sturgeon says 'nothing will come close' to being First Minister after shock resignation

Read more: Estranged wife of trans rapist Isla Bryson 'delighted' Nicola Sturgeon has quit after gender reform plans

Iain Dale: Nicola Sturgeon 'will leave a hole' in politics after she resigned

She has been under sustained pressure for months, fighting fires on many fronts, flames which in many cases just refused to be extinguished.

Take her strategy to achieve independence. Last year she went to the Supreme Court to ask whether or not the Scottish Parliament could bring forward legislation to hold another referendum and was told, emphatically, no. For many in the Yes movement that move had put the cart before the horse and ended any possibility of a Referendum Bill being brought to Holyrood. Rather than further independence, it closed off a route permanently.

Her instinctive bullish reaction to that defeat was to declare the next General Election would be used by her party as a de facto referendum - a decision many said had been made without the knowledge of the vast majority of her MPs at Westminster. Since then we’ve seen her man in the Commons, Ian Blackford, ousted and replaced by Stephen Flynn, and a paper written by one of her most loyal MPs, Stewart Macdonald, on why using a General Election in that way is a very bad idea.

To say the SNP is divided on this issue is putting it mildly. A special conference is due to take place in March to decide on the way forward - with Nicola Sturgeon pushing the de facto referendum motion. Today she said that stepping down would allow members to vote down that idea if they choose to, safe in the knowledge it won’t impact on her leadership. It seems defeat was being expected.

Labour have been 'fairly classy' about Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation

Which raises another question - why have this conference at all? All it would do is tie the hands of any new leader. We may yet see that meeting postponed.

Then there is the issue of gender reform. It has been a running sore for Nicola Sturgeon and her party for years. Many women members quit in protest at the plans to bring self-identification of gender into law, with other women feeling the need to start new organisations believing their concerns about the impact on single sex spaces were not being heard by the Scottish Government.

She saw one of her ministers resign when it came to a vote and the biggest backbench rebellion in SNP history with nine MSPs voting against it. At the same time though she received the support of so many in the LGBT+ community in Scotland - support which definitely sustained her.

But just weeks later the UK government blocked the legislation using a never-before-implemented Section 35 Order because of the potential impact on the operation of the Equality Act.

If there was a hope that would rile up people to cause a constitutional rammy, then it didn’t work. Rather, many on the Yes side of the independence question appeared delighted that the UK government had acted in this way given how much they hated the Bill. And to add further pressure, a rapist who declared a trans identity was then placed in Scotland’s biggest female prison after being convicted for two attacks.

The usually sure-footed Nicola Sturgeon was left flailing when it came to answering if the rapist was a man or a woman.

Nicola Sturgeon resignation: What happened and what next

Today she said she wished she’d been able to bring more “rationality” to the debate around her reforms - for those who believe they tried to raise concerns and were ignored, such a statement will raise nothing more than derision. She also called for less polarisation in politics - while at the same time admitting that she herself had become a polarising figure.

There are also questions, some being asked by Police Scotland, about SNP finances. Peter Murrell is chief executive of the party and husband of Nicola Sturgeon. He gave his party, his employer, a loan of more than £107,000 when it had cash-flow issues. This wasn’t declared to the Electoral Commission when it should have been and knuckles were rapped - but when questioned by reporters about when she knew about the loan, Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t recall. It wasn’t a good look.

And that loan has now been referred to the police as part of its ongoing investigation into a potential fraud around £600,000 worth of donations made for a second independence referendum. Launched in July 2021, it is looking at whether the funds were improperly spent by the SNP on other things, and it has recently been revealed that Mr Murrell’s loan came a day after a party leadership meeting discussed the police investigation.

Add to all of that, the issues of the record waits in the NHS, the teachers’ strikes, the ferries, the failure to dual the A9 as promised… it all adds up to a list of problems which she has maybe just had enough of trying to resolve. After all she is/was a First Minister who always said she was accountable and responsible for everything her government does. That is a heavy burden to bear.

Nicola Sturgeon’s historic career as First Minister

In her speech she pointed to her achievements - the baby box, the rising number of young people from deprived backgrounds going to university, the establishment of Social Security Scotland and the benefits it delivers - and said she would continue to champion improvements to the lives of care-experienced young people. Indeed, she has in the past suggested she might foster when she stepped down as FM.

And of course, she will continue to campaign for independence - indeed perhaps not being First Minister might make her more effective should a second referendum campaign begin. Her track record of winning electoral contests is second to none.

So why now? Only Nicola Sturgeon really knows. It had been felt that she had lost control of the narrative of her government in recent weeks – and control was one thing incredibly important to her. Well she has regained that and while she may be on her way out of Bute House, she is certainly not down or done with Scottish politics. And whoever replaces her will no doubt have to keep one eye on her new seat on Holyrood’s backbenches.