Euan McColm: As Sturgeon’s stock has risen so has her overwhelming value to the SNP

WHEN a spin doctor says of a politician “but they’ll get better”, you can be pretty sure the game’s up.

I’ve heard it whispered to me, time and again. When Wendy Alexander succeeded Jack McConnell as Scottish Labour leader, it was barely minutes before improvements in her performance were pledged by sad-eyed men in corduroy. Those same weary bag-carriers said much the same of Iain Gray who, on taking over from Alexander, provided an answer to that season’s big dinner party question: “How could things now go really, really catastrophically wrong for the Labour Party?”

Sometimes, though, politicians do get better. In evidence, I’d present Nicola Sturgeon. The Deputy First Minister – and now the Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for the independence referendum – was not always the poised political operator of current reputation.

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Not a lifetime ago, she was awkward and uneasy. She had a delivery that suggested a chippiness and she had a difficult relationship with the SNP. Yes, she is revered by activists now, but consider the circumstances which led Sturgeon to become the second most powerful politician in Scotland. When John Swinney quit as party leader in 2004, Sturgeon stood to succeed him. It was no secret that she was Alex Salmond’s preferred candidate. SNP members were unmoved by this and quickly lined up to support Roseanna Cunningham, the left-wing republican.

Salmond decided to reclaim the SNP when he saw it falling into Cunningham’s hands. The excellent news for irony enthusiasts is that Sturgeon is a pivotal member of a roaringly successful leadership thanks to her party’s one-time rejection of her ambitions.

Her career may have been rescued by Salmond eight years ago, but her current reputation has been earned. Party members who once sniffed “no, thanks” now crowd her at conferences. Commentators who wrote her off as a “nippy sweetie” now broadly agree she is a formidable political force. If the Deputy First Minister is considered competent and efficient, it is down to her own ability and nothing else.

There is a broad assumption now in Scottish political circles that Sturgeon will be the next First Minister – or at least the next leader of the SNP. Her new day job of Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Capital Spending, and Cities will certainly give her the economic experience that’s missing from her CV, should she pursue that goal (though friends of Sturgeon are quite adamant she is not certain to head through that particular door, even if it is propped open for her).

Long before her thoughts turn to succession, if they ever do, Sturgeon’s focus will be on how she can repair a hole in the SNP’s independence campaign. The SNP’s own focus groups show Salmond is a turn-off for many female voters, who find him smug and overbearing, a little too “alpha male”. Those same women – young and early middle-aged, the sort of middle-Scotlanders who actually vote – see much to admire in 42-year-old Sturgeon.

She also plays well with men in the same 35- to 45-year-old age group, who are equally impressed by her competence, and perhaps more comfortable than their older counterparts in seeing a woman as a role model. What may be problematic for the SNP is the response she provokes among those aspirational voters. Sturgeon is respected among them for the reassurance her presence brings to government. She is that voter comfort blanket, the “safe pair of hands”.

But what if Sturgeon’s appeal points to the success of Alex Salmond’s “middle Scotland” strategy of promising an aye-curious electorate that a vote for the SNP need not mean a vote for independence? What if she is just the sort of competent politician whose presence comforts unionists rather than inspires them to switch sides? And there is Sturgeon’s task. How can she build on the respect of that crucial sector of the electorate and turn it into something more? How can she lead Scots who will not follow Alex Salmond?

Sturgeon begins with some advantages. She is not by nature a flag-waving nationalist. Her politics were born in Ayrshire in the mid-1980s when the 
issue of nuclear weapons took her to the SNP rather than Labour. She’s no rantinganti-English nat of caricature.

Sturgeon may have started as an idealistic teenage left-winger, but she has become what one colleague described as “the most pragmatic politician in Scotland”. Through crises such as outbreaks of swine flu and Legionnaires’ disease, Sturgeon was calm and business-like. In her TV interviews, she is increasingly relaxed and good humoured. We can see why she appeals to cautious voters. She is the sort of social democrat who doesn’t scare the horses. This story of stability is a perfectly good one for naturally “small c” conservative Scots, but is it the stuff to spark among them a fervour for constitutional revolution?

Expect to see a more personal side to Sturgeon as she takes centre stage in the campaign. Her mission to build a stronger relationship with those who don’t buy the Salmond brand will depend on that.

Friends point out that she can be surprisingly shy in person. That’s true, but she is getting over it. A few years back she told me her political career had really started succeeding when she “stopped giving a f*** what people think of me”. In 15 years, I have never seen her more relaxed and confident.

If Sturgeon can find a story for women that fits the times in which we’re living, she will bring (at least the illusion of) greater depth to the nationalist campaign. Opponents have long dismissed the Deputy First Minister as being dependent on Salmond, but in this instance he very much needs her.

SNP spinners were right when they once insisted Sturgeon would become a better politician. We’re about to find out whether she’s become good enough. «