Is Nicola Sturgeon the right person at the right moment? – John McLellan

Nicola Sturgeon is winning the battle of public perception, while Boris Johnson’s poll ratings are falling, as both try to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, writes John McLellan.

Does Nicola Sturgeon still have the energy to deal with a looming economic depression, wonders John McLellan (Picture: pool/Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail)
Does Nicola Sturgeon still have the energy to deal with a looming economic depression, wonders John McLellan (Picture: pool/Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail)

It’s the most common definition of news; something that somebody, somewhere doesn’t want you to know. Everything else is advertising.

So from that point of view, Dominic Cummings’ trips to County Durham and the Covid-19 outbreak at Edinburgh’s Hilton Carlton Hotel have two things in common; firstly and obviously, the governments involved would far rather we hadn’t found out about either, and secondly, because there are no better stories than cover-ups, they simply won’t go away.

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Like the virus spread itself, answers just produce more questions and no matter how hard First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tries, the questions about her handling of the original outbreak at the Nike conference on February 26-27 just kept coming, as they did for Prime Minster Boris Johnson about the circumstances of his most senior adviser’s visit to his parents’ farm in early March as he became ill with the virus.

The suspicion that neither leader has been straight with the public is what keeps them in the headlines as journalists press for more information. After County Durham Police said Mr Cummings may have broken the rules by going on a 60-mile round trip to test his eyesight, the story will last even longer and more Sunday newspaper spreads beckon tomorrow, if you have the stamina.

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Similarly, unanswered questions about why full contact tracing wasn’t carried out, as the First Minister previously claimed, means the Nike story is still live, and now my colleagues at Edinburgh Council have made sure a report will be produced in the next few weeks. But as with the Cummings goings, the public appetite beyond the political and media bubble for more detail about past events, even recent ones directly relating to the current crisis, will inevitably wane as people move on to wondering what is allowed now lockdown is easing.

Although Scotland’s new lockdown rules weren’t in place until yesterday, the warm weather meant parks were teeming with sunbathers by Thursday lunchtime even before Ms Sturgeon had made the announcement. Portobello Beach this afternoon is likely to look like Southend shore last weekend; as Kenneth Wolstenholme would have said, they “think it’s all over” and are unlikely to be giving much thought to the latest political state of play. Both government communication teams will be relying on public fatigue and the relief that restrictions are beginning to relax to kill off the controversies over the weekend.

There the similarities end, but the comparisons do not, starting with the Scottish Government’s handling of the Catherine Calderwood resignation over her trip to her second home in Fife against the new rules. The First Minister prevaricated, but only took a day to realise the Chief Medical Officer’s position was untenable and she had to go. But then, while Mr Cummings obviously operates at the highest levels of government and has been heavily involved in the Covid-19 response, it was not his face on the television every night telling everyone to obey the rules. No matter, the perception is that the First Minister dealt with the situation decisively and has a stronger hand on the tiller in a storm than the Prime Minister, even though it could be argued he has been equally decisive but arrived at a different conclusion.

The reputations of both governments in the crisis, so clearly entwined as the Scottish administration not so dutifully follows the actions of Downing Street, illustrate the importance of public perceptions and the projection of power and control in dictating political fortunes. Above European average fatalities, the decimation of care home residents, lateness of lockdown, the abandonment of testing, the high-handed behaviour of close advisers and the lack of depth in Cabinet are all equally applicable to both governments, yet the public view in Scotland gives a big thumbs up to Ms Sturgeon.

In an Ipsos-Mori poll for the BBC of 1,006 people in Scotland up to May 20, 82 per cent said Ms Sturgeon had handled the crisis well, while just 30 per cent believed the same of Mr Johnson. The Scottish Government had an approval rating of plus 67 compared to minus 17 for the UK Government. Given the survey was before the Cummings affair, the UK Government’s ratings will hardly have improved, but they lend weight to the argument that views about government performance in the crisis are closely tied to pre-conceived political opinions and Mr Johnson’s approval almost mirrors recent Scottish Conservative votes.

Perception, as everyone in political communications knows, is reality and it takes something very dramatic indeed to alter them meaningfully, and it’s hard to imagine anything more dramatic than the pandemic. While attitudes differed in Scotland because of Brexit, Mr Johnson’s can-do confidence and bluff bonhomie caught the mood across the UK in December but the same approach doesn’t work now. But voters clearly feel Ms Sturgeon’s stern, steel-toed stiletto style is what’s called for now.

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As a result, Ms Sturgeon has been rewarded by another Ipsos-Mori/BBC poll in which 53 per cent said they wanted another independence referendum in the next five years, presumably not to reaffirm Scotland’s place in the Union. And this is despite Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s £100bn furlough scheme of which around £9bn will be spent in Scotland, or the £3.5bn increase in the Scottish Government’s budget because of UK Government emergency spending.

But there is no point in unionists moaning about ungrateful voters not understanding the benefits of the UK, because the perception is that Scotland would have coped. It also demonstrates that no matter how much the UK Government does, no amount of money will ever be enough for the SNP in government as long as it relies on cash flow from Westminster. Sure enough, Finance Secretary Kate Forbes complained this week that £60m in business support has “never materialised”, bemoaning her administration’s lack of borrowing powers, and flexibility is crucial in dealing with as sudden a catastrophe as this.

In pragmatic hands such as hers, more borrowing powers to Holyrood might be less of an issue, but it’s not inconceivable that others would demand that even more public spending plans be funded on the never-never with the Scottish tax-payer expected to foot the bill at a time when taxes are likely to soar anyway. It is all about perceptions of dependency and, as Ms Sturgeon was quick to point out, not about her enjoying or embracing the crisis. The clear perception is she is the right person at the right moment, but after such a punishing year the next question is, as the parks and beaches fill up and the pressures of recovery and a potential economic depression mount, how much energy she’ll have left. Right now, I bet that’s something she’d rather you didn’t know.

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