Nicola Sturgeon may have taken a fateful misstep over Covid vaccines – John McLellan

SNP chief executive Pater Murrell recently described the busy life of Scotland’s number one power couple, how he and his wife, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon are often ships that pass in the night in which one doesn’t know what the other has been doing.

If Nicola Sturgeon is seen to side with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in the row over vaccine supplies, this may not go down well with uncommitted voters (Picture: John Thys/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking at the parliamentary inquiry into the Scottish government’s botched investigation of sexual harassment allegations against Alex Salmond, Mr Murrell said her typical schedule was, “up early in the morning, back late at night, lots happening in between; very limited time at home, very limited personal time”.

He added they were more likely to talk about “what book she's reading, or what I'm making her for her tea" than great affairs of state and with working every day and weekend, “when we get precious time together the last thing we want to be doing is re-running days with each other”.

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Could it be true they did not chew the fat this week about the SNP’s new “route-map” to independence last weekend, how it has played with an increasingly restless membership, or how the wider public might react as it becomes ever clearer that the UK government intends to play the hardest of hardball in refusing to pass the order necessary for a referendum to be legal?

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In what was one of the most politically-charged weeks since the 2019 general election, there wouldn’t be time for much small-talk chez Murrell-Sturgeon, with the presentation of the Scottish government’s annual budget, always her administration’s second-biggest annual set-piece but with far greater significance in combining emergency pandemic measures and the traditional spending splurge ahead of the still-expected May election.

Then there is a deepening sense of crisis over the Salmond inquiry, not least with the publication of the defence by prominent Salmond supporter Craig Murray against his prosecution for contempt of court which details key aspects of the conspiracy allegation against Scottish government figures, and damning criticism from legal academic Alistair Bonnington.

With all that going on, it’s hardly surprising the First Minister looked somewhat weary when facing another Sunday morning grilling on the Andrew Marr Show last weekend and her stamina can only be admired.

But time was found in a hectic schedule on Wednesday to record a two-minute social media video message about transphobia and for a speech she said was “not planned, not scripted” and without “armies of advisers” there was barely a syllable out of place.

It was a response, she said, to reports she’d received that day of “mainly young people in significant numbers leaving the SNP… because they did not consider the SNP a safe, tolerant or welcoming place for trans people”.

Given she was speaking as leader of the SNP and not First Minister, and her husband is responsible for managing and maintaining membership, presumably this was a matter they would have discussed.

On Thursday the video took on a greater significance when the party’s deepening rift over trans rights became apparent with the extraordinary claim by one SNP MP, Kirsty Blackman, that she had been blocked by another, Joanna Cherry, in a row which broke out the day before the First Minister’s video over a social media ban on a “gender critical” account which Ms Cherry had criticised.

On one level the First Minister’s video is, as she put it, a heart-felt plea for tolerance in her party, but it’s also a twist in Ms Sturgeon and Ms Cherry’s relationship, drawing together the trans rights debate on which they differ, the referendum Plan B which Ms Cherry demanded, and Alex Salmond who Ms Cherry wants the party to reinstate.

The clear message of the First Minister’s video is that some within the party are causing an exodus of young members, presumably towards the Greens and threatening a long-term division in the independence movement, and if not aimed at Ms Cherry then to whom?

Maybe none of this matters to most voters and if health polls is a top priority and independence comes fifth or sixth, then trans rights will be some way behind.

Ms Sturgeon rightly says the pandemic is her priority, and it’s not as if it was a quiet week on the Covid front. The grim milestone of 100,000 UK coronavirus deaths was reached, proportionately mirrored by nearly 8,000 deaths in Scotland, and her response to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visit to Scotland was framed as a flouting of Covid travel restrictions which ignored the trips of senior MP Kenny MacAskill, no friend of hers, from East Lothian to the North.

But by far the most significant was the decision to contribute to the EU’s Covid vaccine trade war with the UK by promising to divulge sensitive vaccine supply information which the UK fears the EU will use to pressurise manufacturers.

Unlike her video, the angry threat to start publishing vaccine supply details, in response to opposition accusations that the Scottish inoculation programme is flagging, will have been gamed with advisers.

Brit-bashing is standard SNP practice when the First Minister is in a corner, but if she’s seen to side with a desperate EU trying to divert bought-and-paid-for British vaccine supplies away from the UK and therefore Scotland, then it could put her reputation for deft handling of the emergency at considerable risk amongst uncommitted voters.

For all the pro-Europe rhetoric, the vaccine row has exposed Europe at its bureaucratic, centralising, inflexible worst; preventing individual countries from getting on with their vaccine programmes while the bloc caught up, taking months longer to approve treatments, and lashing out at the drug companies when they realised they were not at the front of the queue.

It won’t turn Scotland into a land of Boris lovers, but it has at least demonstrated a benefit of the UK’s ability to react independently

Plan A or B for an independence referendum, Plan T for trans rights, or Plan S for Salmond, nothing matters more right now for Scottish voters that Plan V for vaccines.

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