What are Nicola Sturgeon's top six challenges after council elections?

With polls closed and votes set to be counted today, Nicola Sturgeon is expected to lead her SNP party to another victory in the council elections, but the challenges facing the First Minister for the next few years are significant.

Cost of living

The cost-of-living crisis is set to dominate politics for the foreseeable future as Covid is relegated to background noise amid sky-high inflation and wage squeezes.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

The First Minister told reporters on Wednesday the government is looking daily at the problem with an exercise across government dedicated to looking at how resources could be reallocated to tackle the crisis.

So far, no answers have emerged.

Critics will argue this is symptomatic of her administration; one many claim is tired, out of ideas, and in need of a period of opposition to refresh itself away from government.

Nicola Sturgeon will continue to blame Westminster for failing to act and claim her government does not have the powers to act as they would wish.

But the question is whether her approach of running a government, which positions itself as oppositional to Westminster, will continue to sell to voters as demands for practical, proactive action grow.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon poses for the media outside the Broomhouse Community Hall polling station, Glasgow, as voters went to the polls.

Ferries

Those within nationalist ranks who claim this issue does not matter to voters or is an example of an ‘Edinburgh bubble’ are wrong.

Parts of the public view the failure of the SNP government to deliver these ferries as a issue centrally of competence and it is, slowly, hurting the party in the eyes of voters.

Derek Mackay’s expected return to Holyrood – for the first time since he was forced to resign over messages he sent to a teenage boy – as a witness on the issue is likely to be the parliamentary moment of the year.

Ministers are also yet to answer or provide evidence for why they decided to award the contract to Ferguson Marine without full financial protection.

Jim McColl will also continue to be a thorn in the First Minister’s side and for as long as there are questions about missing documents and accusations of the SNP leader being dishonest, questions will continue to be asked by parliament and the media.

Without full transparency and amid the ongoing blame-game between the SNP, CMAL, and FMEL, the scandal will rumble on and the government’s answers must improve.

Covid Inquiry

Bubbling underneath the surface of Scottish politics is the start of the Covid-19 inquiry, set to launch in early summer this year.

We had an inkling of how critical such an inquiry could be with the judgement of the High Court in England that the policy – almost mirrored to the word by the SNP – of discharging hospital patients into care homes was unlawful.

Nicola Sturgeon and her government’s handling of the pandemic will come under forensic scrutiny with details on how and why decisions were made pored over in full view of the public.

Gender Recognition Reform

Central to the SNP/Green coalition deal is to pass the long overdue Gender Recognition Reform Act, backed by all parties in 2017.

This has already caused seismic splits within the SNP, with Alex Salmond’s Alba Party attempting to galvanise those vociferously against the reform against his former party in the hope of an electoral breakthrough.

Joanna Cherry is effectively acting as an opposition MP within the party on the issue, while some MSPs including finance secretary Kate Forbes have indicated their concerns around the bill.

Any attempt to pass the bill will be met with social media fury from those opposed and potentially a handful of SNP rebels, but it will likely pass easily with the support of the Liberal Democrats, Greens, and much of Scottish Labour.

The SNP has no wiggle room on this issue. It cannot delay the bill nor withdraw it or the cooperation agreement with the Greens will collapse.

But the pain of the experience and the fierce backlash from social media and high profile opponents such as JK Rowling may sting the First Minister’s popularity.

Boris Johnson

Nicola Sturgeon’s biggest obstacle to independence is also arguably her greatest electoral asset.

The Prime Minister is a liability in Scotland, popular with only a small group of hardcore Conservative grassroot voters and members and otherwise almost universally disliked.

It will be a test of the First Minister’s ability whether she can make the most of the flailing Westminster government before Johnson goes – either in an election or booted out by his own MPs.

It may stain her legacy if she is unable to secure a referendum or turn public opinion firmly towards Yes before Johnson’s departure as Prime Minister.

There may even be the worst-case scenario of Sturgeon vacating the leadership before the Conservative leader if he wins the next general election.

It would be a significant understatement to say such a scenario – while highly unlikely – would not wound her deeply should it come to pass.

Independence

Just 57 per cent of the First Minister’s own voters – those who voted SNP in the Holyrood elections last year – believe her when she states there will be an independence referendum held before the end of 2023.

More than half the country – 53 per cent – believe such a vote is unlikely to take place on her timetable.

And with the UK Government showing no sign of shifting its position on a referendum, the onus is on Ms Sturgeon to find a way to break the deadlock.

A referendum bill legislating for a vote is likely to pass by the end of 2022, if only to keep the ever marching independence parade going.

However, its competency will be under significant scrutiny and it is widely believed will spark a court battle either with the UK Government or a potential ‘McMiller’, referencing the precedent set by the Brexit-challenging Gina Miller.

With indyref2 legal advice set to published by June 10 thanks to a transparency victory for The Scotsman, ministers are set to balance demands for a vote against the as yet unknown legal reality of their predicament.

It remains an open question whether the SNP can continue to succeed if it fails to deliver its central electoral promise, even if that failure ultimately boils down to UK ministers’ intransigence.

Want to hear more from The Scotsman's politics team? Check out the latest episode of our political podcast, The Steamie.

It's available wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

 0 comments

Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.