Nicola Sturgeon has told Andrew Marr: ‘I do intend to lead my party into the next Scottish Parliament election and hopefully win that and stay as First Minister.’ What’s this all about, then? Didn’t she just record a stonking General Election victory north of the border? Yes, she did. Isn’t polling support for the SNP at levels that would impress even Kim Jong-un? Not quite, but not far off.
The SNP leader finds herself in an unusual position. Electorally, she is her party’s most successful leader – winning three Westminster elections in a row and a third term in office at Holyrood. But Scottish Nationalists didn’t become Scottish Nationalists to win Westminster elections; they yearn to break free from the clutches of colonial tyranny. (Some of them really do talk like this.) The SNP grassroots want another referendum on independence but, with Boris Johnson saying No, Sturgeon has no way of delivering one. Her once cultishly devoted followers are growing agnostic on Sturgeon’s leadership.
Auditions for her replacement are already taking place. Ruth Davidson’s decision to stand down at the 2021 Scottish Parliament election means her marginal Edinburgh Central seat is up for grabs. Former SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson put his name forward for selection last week and was all but guaranteed the nomination. That is until last night, when Joanna Cherry threw her hat in the ring. She’s the Edinburgh South West MP and QC who was a key player in the Supreme Court prorogation case against Boris Johnson.
Both are spoken of privately – and, increasingly, not so privately – as potential leaders of the SNP. Robertson hails from the moderate, establishment wing of the party, while Cherry is more aligned with the grassroots and former leader Alex Salmond. Although Sturgeon and the party establishment believe a second independence referendum requires Westminster’s permission, Cherry told Katy Balls in January that there may be a constitutional case for Holyrood making the decision itself.
So, the normally routine business of selecting a candidate for Edinburgh Central has turned into a shadow leadership contest for the SNP. Cherry’s full statement on her decision to stand, issued this morning, scarcely bothers to conceal this:
Scotland must have the right to escape Boris Johnson’s Brexit; we must have the right to choose our own future and we need a strategy to get us to that point of decision. With a large Tory majority across England the UK is set firmly on a hard Tory agenda for the next decade.
‘Scotland will be completely ignored at Westminster, the movement for Scotland to be an independent European nation can only be realised from Holyrood and I want to offer my services where I think they can be of most use. I look forward to a forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, SNP MPs at Westminster have never been there to settle down; I am for settling up.
Already the wagons are circling to defend Sturgeon. In response to this morning’s Marr interview, Ian Blackford praised her ‘leadership credentials’ and said she was ‘demonstrably the person to lead us’ out of the UK and into the EU. Having to rely on the endorsement of Ian Blackford is one of the surest signs that your leadership credentials aren’t what they used to be. The SNP leader will have to reassert her authority over her party, even if it confirms her sceptics doubts. Sturgeon’s leadership is now an endurance test: how long can she cling on?