Leaders: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon above the fray

The First Minister gives her keynote speech at the 2015 SNP conference. Picture: Getty
The First Minister gives her keynote speech at the 2015 SNP conference. Picture: Getty
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With Sturgeon so secure, the battle to become the official opposition hardly seems to matter

Despite the scrutiny it received, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s speech to the SNP’s annual conference yesterday was surely among the easiest she has ever delivered. Sturgeon leads a party that wants to be led. Her authority is absolute.

A great many of those in the audience yesterday believe that a second referendum should be held sooner or later but they are happy to accept Sturgeon’s more cautious approach.

If the First Minister says it may be some time before a second referendum then SNP members seem willing to stay in line. Sturgeon is revered by them and polls show that the wider public approves, too.

The SNP is predicted to win more than half of all votes in next May’s Holyrood election while opposition parties fight over a distant second place. But it cannot depend on all of those who vote for its candidates in elections to support independence. Sturgeon spoke to those Scots on the first day of the conference, urging any who voted No in the referendum to consider giving their support to her party next May.

The SNP appears to have reverted to the ­message it delivered in 2007 and 2011 that a vote for the party is not necessarily a vote for independence.

That being so, the Scottish Government has no choice but to turn its attention to matters other than the constitution.

There are problems across Scotland’s pubic services; the government will find no shortage of issues to look at. Police Scotland, the NHS, and the Scottish education system all require immediate attention.

The SNP would be under considerably more pressure to deal with some of the problems at hand if there was a proper opposition at Holyrood. A glance around the parties which oppose the nationalists shows just how weak the current opposition is.

The Liberal Democrats, once a party of government in Scotland, are all but wiped out.

Labour – for so long the dominant party of Scottish politics – now enjoys the support of around a fifth of voters.

Recently elected leader Kezia Dugdale has not, so far, shown any sign that she has a strategy which can credibly challenge the ruling party’s dominance.

The issues of health, justice, and schools all reveal SNP weak spots yet the opposition parties seem unable to connect with them.

There is now a real battle between Labour and the Conservatives to become the official opposition after next May’s election.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has certainly made her party a credible potential alternative to Labour in that role. She claims that her party is now the sole defender of the Union. After Dugdale’s recent remark that Labour politicians would be free to campaign for a Yes vote in a future independence referendum, Davidson’s words may ring true with some who have not previously considered voting Tory.

As the party conference season draws to a close, we see two parties – the SNP and the Tories – dominating British politics and a Labour Party unsure, both north and south of the Border, of how to take on the Scottish and UK governments.

Nicola Sturgeon will next May ask Scots, for the first time, to make her First Minister. It appears likely that she will be further rewarded with the gift of another majority government.

And who the opposition is seems, at the moment, to be of very little consequence, as nobody is putting up a credible challenge.