Nicola Sturgeon's low-key trip to Italy may have revealed her exit strategy – Susan Dalgety

Nicola Sturgeon is a notorious home bird. She has been known to endure a short “working holiday” in Portugal, but friends and family struggle to get her to leave her Bute House desk.

Nicola Sturgeon has been making friends with world figures like former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, ex New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director general of the World Trade Organisation (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/PA Wire)
Nicola Sturgeon has been making friends with world figures like former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, ex New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director general of the World Trade Organisation (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/PA Wire)

But earlier this week, as all hell broke loose in the SNP, the First Minister jetted off to north Italy, to Bellagio on the shores of Lake Como. It’s an idyllic location, famous for its luxury villas and jaw-dropping views.

So what urgent government business forced her to leave behind her teetering in-tray, piled high with plans for a second referendum, reports on the cost-of-living crisis and press cuttings about Patrick Grady’s sex scandal?

Her personal Twitter feed, which she uses to keep a grateful public up to date with her latest reading material and to take the occasional pop at Anas Sarwar, was strangely silent. There were several pictures of her enjoying a chummy chat with Kirsty Wark about the menopause and HRT, but no mention of Italy.

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It fell to the civil servants who manage her official First Minister account to reveal her plans.

“First Minister @NicolaSturgeon is today travelling to Bellagio, Italy to attend the two-day Global Women Leader’s Summit… discussions will focus on protecting women’s rights, driving gender equality & tackling climate change,” read the tweet.

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Scottish independence: Nicola Sturgeon to set out route map to second referendum...

And that was it. Not even a government press release explaining why the First Minister was out of the country during one of the busiest weeks of the year.

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Further investigation revealed that the summit was not quite what it seemed. It was a get-together of women leaders from across the world, but Sturgeon appeared to be the only one in an elected position.

That said, there were some serious women in attendance. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director general of the World Trade Organisation for one, as well as at least two former politicians, Hillary Clinton and Helen Clark, a past Prime Minister of New Zealand.

The event, under the auspices of Connected Women Leaders, was hosted by a think tank, the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and a major American charity, the Rockefeller Institute. The clue is in the title. For connected, read network. The First Minister, it seems, spent much of this week at an international networking event in north Italy.

She no doubt discussed gender equality and climate change, as she tweeted on her return, but in between sessions on “reimagining the future”, business cards will have been exchanged, Telegram group chats set up, upcoming opportunities dropped casually into the conversation over an apéro spritz.

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Sturgeon will deny it strenuously if asked, but she is scanning the horizon for her next career move, and it may well come sooner than we think. She has boxed herself into a corner over a second independence referendum. Even if she holds an “advisory” poll next October and it returns a narrow majority for leaving the UK, it will be a pyrrhic victory. It’s nothing more than a glorified opinion poll.

But it would give Sturgeon an escape route before the 2026 Holyrood elections. Having secured a “yes” vote of sorts, she could hand over the reins of power to whoever is left standing in the SNP. And if a second referendum fails to materialise, or she loses the vote, she will be forced to quit anyway.

But where does this former First Minister go? Not the House of Lords. Or a media career. And it is unimaginable that she would retire, in her early 50s, to her Glasgow suburban home to tend her garden.

The clues lie in plain sight. She is polishing her CV for a top job in a global charity or think tank.

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Witness last October’s Vogue interview. The glossy magazine is a Who’s Who of progressive women leaders, from Amal Clooney to Sturgeon’s new BFF, Hillary Clinton. An interview in one of Vogue’s 27 global editions is worth far more than a PhD in the rarefied world of international philanthropy.

Her photo-bombing of world leaders at Cop26 was not as crass as it may have looked at the time. Google Nicola Sturgeon and Joe Biden and up pop smiling images of her with the leader of the free world. In our digital-first world, this means she’s on first name terms with Uncle Joe.

And her political messaging has taken on a distinctly liberal progressive tone, focusing more on issues such as gender identity and climate justice than domestic bread and butter challenges such as child poverty and transport infrastructure. She has even discovered her latent feminism after decades of ignoring the women’s movement in favour of nationalism.

A position as chief executive for a major international charity, one that focuses on women or climate change, would give her the high profile she has come to enjoy. It would mean her leaving her comfort zone of Glasgow’s southside for Manhattan or Geneva, but her homesickness would soon pass. And in her spare time, she can write her memoir. Hillary Clinton has written three so far.

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Swapping elected politics for the elite world of international philanthropy is a well-trodden path. David Miliband escaped the Labour Party and humiliation at the hands of his little brother Ed by accepting a job as president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee refugee charity. His reputed seven-figure pay package and extensive global influence more than compensates for his exile from British politics.

Sturgeon will no doubt spend this weekend preparing for her parliamentary statement on Tuesday when she will set out her “route map” towards a second referendum. But don’t be surprised if she breaks off occasionally to message her new posse about her own future.

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