Euan McColm: Is this really the beginning of the end for Nicola Sturgeon?

Not so very long ago, Nicola Sturgeon was enthusiastic about the opportunity to have her say. The First Minister said she relished the prospect of appearing before the Holyrood committee established to investigate how a civil service probe into allegations of harassment levelled against Alex Salmond had been ruled unlawful and the Scottish Government ordered to pay his legal costs of more than £500,000.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon attends First Minister's Questions at the Scottish Parliament
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon attends First Minister's Questions at the Scottish Parliament

Sturgeon looked forward to answering the questions of MSPs - four from the SNP, two tories, one apiece from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and Andy Wightman, who was a Green when the committee was established last year but now sits as an independent - and countering claims that she had been part of a conspiracy to remove her predecessor from public life.

If Sturgeon had any qualms about the integrity of the committee, she kept those to herself.

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How quickly things change. The First Minister, an army of her spin doctors, and several nationalist politicians are currently engaged in a vigorous campaign to discredit the committee, in particular those of its members who have the audacity not to be members of the SNP.

After it emerged that five of the nine strong committee had concluded that Sturgeon did, in fact, mislead parliament over what she knew about the allegations made against Salmond and when she knew about them, the First Minister unleashed the hounds. The committee had been hijacked by partisans, went the spin, who had decided Sturgeon was a liar before she’d uttered a word to them. Oh, did the First Minister say she looked forward to appearing in front of the committee? What she meant to say was these duplicitous swines wouldn’t know the truth if it bit them on their arses.

We’ll see the committee’s findings - along with the conclusions of James Hamilton QC, who is currently examining whether Sturgeon broke the ministerial code - in the days ahead. We can be certain that any further criticisms of the First Minister will be angrily rejected by the SNP. That’s politics for you. It’s a dirty game best suited to thick-skinned hypocrites.

Of course, no matter what the committee of Hamilton report, Sturgeon is going nowhere. Opposition politicians calling on her to stand down know fine and well that she intends to do no such thing. The SNP will gather round their leader, the majority of its members offering the wholehearted support. There is an election in May, the party will say. Why don’t we let the people of Scotland decide whether they still have faith in Nicola Sturgeon?

And Sturgeon will lead her party to victory and continue to be First Minister of Scotland.

But the inevitability of that outcome doesn’t mean Sturgeon isn’t damaged by current events. Until recently, poll after poll showed not only majority support for independence but predicted the SNP would win an overall majority in May's elections. But opinion is shifting. Now, independence is the preference of a minority of Scots while the SNP looks likely to fall short of the majority Sturgeon craves.

This change in nationalist fortunes shouldn’t surprise us. The party is engaged in a damaging civil war which is never an appealing look and its strategy of trying to defect attention from its domestic problems by hyping up the idea of there being another referendum within months has clashed messily with public opinion that says the constitutional argument can take a back seat until we’ve dealt with the not inconsiderable matter of getting through the coronavirus pandemic.

Back in 2014, the SNP went into the referendum campaign looking positive and united. Its white paper on independence might have been riddled with holes but where the Yes campaign lacked answers, it had optimism to spare. And it had discipline. The SNP of 2014 was a happy ship, with all crew members collaborating effectively and enthusiastically.

The SNP that persuaded many unionists to change their mind about the UK not longer exists. In its place is a party river with splits, angrily lashing out at critics both internal and external.

A leader damaged by events in charge of a party deeply split on policy is not, history tells us, a recipe for continued success.

Onn the other side of the election, Sturgeon will continue to demand Prime Minister Boris Johnson grants the Scottish Government the power to hold another referendum and he will continue to say no. Meanwhile, the more impatient members of the SNP will want to see a real “Plan B” for independence. The problem for Sturgeon is that no edible “Plan B” exists and nor can ione be conjured up for as long as Westminster holds all the cards.

When Sturgeon succeeded Salmond as SNP leader, many in her party believed she was the leader who would succeed where he had failed. She would, thought perfectly sensible people, lead the Yes campaign to victory in a future referendum. That view is no longer so widely held. Rather, Sturgeon is wounded and some of her most loyal supporters believe we are seeing the beginning of the end of her leadership.

This, says one senior SNP politician, will be a long slow decline but the damage she has suffered in recent weeks has knocked her off track and it will be difficult for her to regain momentum.

Nicola Sturgeon will win in May and she will win handsomely. But the chances of her securing the second referendum she desires are vanishingly small. And if she can't deliver a referendum, a growing number of SNP members will start asking whether somebody else could.