Whoever replaces Nicola Sturgeon will inherit an in-tray full of problems
As Scottish Labour met at the week for its spring conference, Anas Sarwar could be forgiven for having had a small spring in his step. The newspaper headlines in the week running up to the meeting of his party faithful had been dominated by calls for his political nemesis, the first minister, to go.
And by Wednesday lunchtime, she had.
In her resignation speech, Sturgeon acknowledged that she was becoming a lightning rod for the division that has so riven our country’s recent political discourse. Although she naturally stopped short of taking any personal responsibility for fueling that disunity.
Who knows what the straw was that eventually broke the camel’s back, but just two days before Sturgeon’s shock announcement that she would be standing down as first minister after eight years, a Lord Ashcroft opinion poll revealed just how polarising a figure she had become.
With support for both independence and for Sturgeon down, voters in general were evenly split on whether she should step down at the next election or go now - and a substantial number of SNP supporters favoured the latter.
In the extensive poll of over 2,000 Scots carried exclusively in Holyrood magazine, the headlines generated for the SNP were not good. The numbers revealed that the gulf between the SNP government’s priorities after 15 years political dominance, and those of ordinary Scots was massive. And that on the two main campaigning flanks most closely associated with Sturgeon, of the gender recognition reform and her knee jerk de facto referendum proposition, the public [and her party] was firmly against her. As she acknowledged herself, she was becoming the problem.
And while rumours of Sturgeon’s departure had intensified over the last few months with commentators looking at the fault lines within the party and her increasingly poor record in government, the announcement that she was going still came as a shock.
In a column published last Monday which seems even more prescient given her abrupt departure, I wrote that if she was any other minister in her government, the men in the grey kilts would have paid her a visit by now.
So, while the glowing eulogies for this remarkable politician who at 52 has been an MSP for almost half of her life and our longest serving first minister flowed, it is also worth examining why exactly that time became now.
Sturgeon had a reputation for being good in a crisis, she came to UK prominence when she was Health Secretary dealing with a national outbreak of swine flu and her leadership led to a conference of doctors in England giving her a standing ovation and asking why they couldn’t have a health secretary that was more like her.
But it also worth saying she was good at handling crises made by others or by existential threats that come from out with her own sphere of influence, a global pandemic, a war in Ukraine, climate change, but she has perhaps proved less so in dealing with crises of her own.
She leaves an in-tray full of problems for her successor. From drug deaths to dualling the A9, to the abortive approach to a National Care Service, to the inevitable scandal engulfing the Deposit Returns Scheme, to the parlous state of the NHS, to the broken promises around, ironically, The Promise, to the state of education, from dodgy ferry contracts to renewable energy give-aways, to failed climate-change targets, and the looming crisis in local government, there are few good news stories for the next first minister to take over bar a baby box.
And that’s before they must tackle head-on the extensive fall-out of the gender recognition reforms and what to do about Sturgeon’s unilateral call for the next general election to be a de facto referendum.
Many fine words are being written about Sturgeon as a communicator and campaigner, but her most damaging legacy for the country has been her lack of succession management. She departs abruptly with mounting problems and with no obvious leader-in-waiting and with the fall-out from the GRR bill still promising to shape the contest in its shadow. That is truly a mark of poor leadership.
In her resignation speech Sturgeon said she was freeing her party to make its own decision on the best strategy for the next independence referendum. For some of the deeper thinkers in the SNP, that might mean putting independence on the backburner, electing a leader who can press the reset button and getting back to working on competent government to help rebuild the case.
And for Anas Sarwar, on the eve of his second anniversary as Scottish Labour leader, he could perhaps afford himself a little belief in the hope that the SNP hegemony of Scottish politics is at the beginning of its end and for him and for Labour, therein lies an opportunity.
This article first appeared in the Sunday Post
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