No winner between two first ministers - leader comment

Anas Sarwar used his first broadcast interview as Scottish Labour leader yesterday to state that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon should resign if she has breached the ministerial code by misleading the Scottish Parliament over harassment allegations made against her predecessor Alex Salmond.

Former first minister Alex Salmond is sworn in before giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament committee examining the handling of harassment allegations him. PA Photo.

In normal times this would seem an unremarkable statement to make. Indeed, as Mr Sarwar pointed out, if Ms Sturgeon was in opposition it is very likely she too would call for the resignation of a first minister who was found to have breached the ministerial code.

However, these are not normal times and, as May's Holyrood election looms, polling evidence suggests the fallout from the scandal is beginning to “cut through” with the electorate.

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After months of polls showing majority support for independence, a survey yesterday put those who favour breaking away from the UK on 43 per cent and those who do not on 44 per cent, with 13 per cent undecided. The poll also found 50 per cent believe Ms Sturgeon should resign if she is found to have breached the ministerial code over when she knew about allegations against Mr Salmond.

No one expects the SNP not to win in May but the majority support among MSPs for independence - with the Greens on the same side as the Nationalists in the constitutional debate - looks less likely than it did a few weeks ago. And for Ms Sturgeon, the loss of such a majority would seem to entail the loss of her mandate to agitate for another independence referendum.

Ms Sturgeon will on Wednesday appear before the committee of MSPs looking into her government’s handling of the complaints against Mr Salmond following his appearance on Friday. But there will be no winner between the First Minister and her predecessor. Mr Salmond's political career is over and his reputation is in ruins, while the best Ms Sturgeon can hope for is effective damage limitation.

As the polls show, the affair has already damaged the independence cause. It is the extent of that damage which is yet to be determined. And if Ms Sturgeon leaves office the problems facing the movement will be all the more profound as there is no obvious heir apparent in her party’s ranks.