Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have enjoyed a near Teflon-like veneer in the eyes of Scots since the First Minister took office just over a year ago. The party’s popularity has hit remarkable heights with consistent polls suggesting that well over half of voters will back the Nationalists in next year’s Scottish Parliament election. It would leave the party with another majority in Scotland and an unprecedented third term in government. And no political flak seem to stick.
There have been problems. Recent weeks have seen Ms Sturgeon rocked by controversies over police investigations involving two of her newly elected MPs, Michelle Thomson and Natalie McGarry, who have been forced to quit the party. Health Secretary Shona Robison has not had her difficulties to seek amid growing public anger over patients being forced to wait for hours on end in accident and emergency, while the opening of the new £842 million Queen Elizabeth hospital has been plagued by problems over waiting times. Perhaps more worrying are claims from independent auditors that the Conservative government at Westminster has been spending more on the NHS frontline than the Nationalists in Scotland. The flagship creation of Police Scotland has been mired in controversies. The emergence of armed police on the streets, stop and search abuses and call-handling failures all combined to bring about the departure of the merged force’s first chief constable, Sir Stephen House.
Opposition leaders and spin doctors have been privately banging their heads against their office walls at Holyrood wondering what it takes to dent the SNP’s seamless popularity.
So why should the latest political row over the closure of the Forth Road Bridge be any different – is it likely to result in any lasting damage for Ms Sturgeon? The emergence of a number of official documents and safety reports over the past week have made it clear that budgets were cut for the bridge by the SNP government. Vital repairs were delayed as a result of this – including to the area where the crack has eventually appeared.
But what takes this beyond the realm of politicians indulging in the blame game? First of all, the closure of the bridge is something which is having a major, disruptive impact. Thousands of commuters are struggling to get across the Forth for work in the morning, as well as the knock-on effect for childcare and public services, while businesses are losing millions of pounds in trade. People are angry – and the growing perception that maintenance shortcomings were behind this closure won’t bode well for ministers.
The SNP’s supremacy in Scotland recently has also, in large part, been down to the absence of a credible alternative among the other political parties. But the past week has seen Labour in particular begin to act like an effective opposition. The steady stream of damning revelations orchestrated by the party through official documents and safety reports have made it a very difficult week for Ms Sturgeon, who was put through the ringer by opposition leaders at First Minister’s Questions.
Unusually, the SNP did not appear to be on top of the issue and the normally reliable transport minister Derek MacKay suffered a torrid week. He initially denied that axed repairs would have solved the problem, before later admitting on national radio that these would have seen the cracked area replaced. Ministers will be desperately hoping the weather-dependent repairs don’t drag far beyond the planned early January re-opening.
A lengthy delay is sure to see the closure remain a live issue going into the Holyrood election campaign – and it may just provoke the kind of anger which sways floating voters.