Nicola Sturgeon has had a change of heart. Gone are the ultimatums, the stridency and the self-righteous rhetoric. In an interview with today’s Daily Record, we see Sturgeon the Introspective:
‘Brexit gave me an insight, maybe that I didn’t have before, of how No voters would have felt had the referendum on independence gone the other way.’
We see Sturgeon the Pluralist:
‘Scotland belongs to those who oppose independence just as much as it belongs to those who support independence.’
There is even Sturgeon the Collegial. On a Labour proposal to include a ‘remain, but with more powers’ option in any future Scottish independence referendum, she says:
‘If they bring forward a credible proposition, then of course there has to be a discussion…’
Who are you and what have you done with the woman who routinely accuses opponents of ‘talking down’ their own country?
Could the SNP leader’s sudden transformation from Dolores Umbridge to Luna Lovegood be connected to the fact she has been forced to campaign in Lanarkshire? Or to her futile pleas for party activists not to canvass for a candidate dropped for anti-Semitism? Or to the stubborn failure of the polls to show the Scottish Tories being punished for Brexit?
Sturgeon went into the campaign combative, declaiming Brexit and touting Scexit — Scotland leaving the UK — as the only way to escape Boris Johnson’s wicked right-wing plot to enforce the outcome of a referendum. In the fading hours before polls open, she is forced to feign humility and tone down her bellicose rhetoric about Scexit.
What went wrong? First off, let’s not overstate things. This is a wobble and has come late enough in the campaign that it might not filter through before Thursday.
Polls still show the SNP winning the election north of the border but what looked like a landslide now hints at being a more modest victory. Before the election was called, the Nationalists had a 20-point lead over the Tories; today it’s down to ten points. Worse, the Tories are polling pretty much what they got in 2017. They were supposed to be all but wiped out but they may emerge from Thursday with just a few scrapes and sprains and a casualty here and there.
If the latest polls are at all right, Sturgeon’s decision to make the election a referendum on whether there should be another independence referendum has been rebuffed by the voters. Or at least her dubious proposal that Indyref2 be held before any People’s Vote on Brexit. Things might have been very different if Sturgeon and her party had accepted the result of the 2014 plebiscite and focused on running the Scottish Government. Instead, they began almost immediately thumping the drum for another go. When Sturgeon calls for a second Scexit referendum, it doesn’t sound like a pragmatic escape plan from Brexit; it sounds like she’s just banging on about independence again.
By making Indyref2 the central issue of the campaign, Sturgeon may have energised Unionist voters, which could benefit the Scottish Tories in seats like Lanark and Hamilton East (SNP majority of 266) as well as in tight races in Tory-held seats like Stirling (Tory majority of 148) and Ochil and South Perthshire (Tory majority of 3,359).
At the same time, the 36 per cent of SNP voters who voted to leave the EU might decide they’ve had enough of being disdained by their party and lend Boris Johnson their vote just once to get Brexit done.
Even Scottish Labour is unusually optimistic. One insider has suggested to me that, while dropping from seven to two seats is the most likely result, with an extremely fair wind the party could end up with between seven and ten. Potential pick-ups include Inverclyde (SNP majority of 384) and Glasgow East (SNP majority of 75). The polls still point to a bad night for Jeremy Corbyn’s Caledonian comrades but in the closest seats it could come down to relatively small changes in turnout.
Also counting against the SNP is Nicola Sturgeon herself. The Nationalist leader is loved by those who love her but starkly disliked by those who don’t. To hear voters — especially women over 40 — talk about her is to subject yourself to some pretty tight language. There is a reason most Tory leaflets in Scotland have a prominent picture of Sturgeon’s face on it. It’s not just a matter of personality, though. Sturgeon is a constant reminder of a devolved government in Edinburgh stumbling from one crisis to the next.
In health, Accident and Emergency waiting times are at their worst level in two years, the Edinburgh Sick Kids Hospital couldn’t open, reportedly because of faults in the ventilation system, the St John’s Hospital children’s ward can only operate four nights a week because of staffing shortages, another investigation has been launched into infection control at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow after the death of a third child at the facility. In education, the latest international rankings show Scotland now at a record low in maths and science. In home affairs, the latest chair of Scotland’s troubled police watchdog — the third in six years — has resigned complaining the system is ‘fundamentally flawed’.
The safe money is still on an overall SNP victory north of the border but Nicola Sturgeon’s failings in government and her failings as a political strategist are catching up with her.