Just 24 days ago, the BBC broadcast a fireside chat between Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon and journalist Laura Kuenssberg. The politician was asked directly, twice, if she would stay on to fight for independence. She answered emphatically. “For the avoidance of all doubt, I don’t feel anywhere near [stepping down]…”. On Wednesday, Sturgeon announced she was stepping down.
For the avoidance of all doubt, 24 days clearly is an awfully long time in Scottish politics.
In that period, Sturgeon has been under significant media scrutiny over several issues, most prominently a furore over a transgender rapist sent to a women’s prison. She denied on Wednesday that this played any significant role in her decision to walk away from the job she held, with an iron grip, for eight years. Opposition within her party to her plan to make the next general election a quasi “referendum” on independence may have been a bigger factor.
While there was media pressure on Sturgeon, there was little pressure on her position from within the Scottish National Party. One prominent SNP insider remarked that despite recent noise around her, there was no internal pressure on Sturgeon to go. The shock of her departure truly has reverberated from Edinburgh to London and back. Nobody expected it.
Often when a leader departs unexpectedly, a handful of potential successors quickly emerge – those who could end up the winners from the departure. Such was Sturgeon’s dominance, she has no heir apparent. It could be Kate Forbes, the Scottish finance secretary, or Angus Robertson, Scotland’s ambitious cabinet secretary, who is fancied by some. Other possibilities include health secretary Humza Yousef, and deputy first minister John Swinney. None particularly stands out. It could be someone else again.
The big winner from Sturgeon’s departure lies not in Scotland, but in Westminster. Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, must have been punching the air when he heard the news. Labour insiders last week argued that the party could be competitive in up to 20 Scottish constituencies at the next general election. With the towering figure of Sturgeon out of the way, that number could be even higher.
If Labour were to take 10 or at a push, 15 seats off the SNP, it could prove crucial in helping the party achieve the huge 124-seat gain it needs to unseat the Tories with an overall majority. Scottish political commentator Ayesha Hazarika said Sturgeon’s exit was a “hammer blow” for Conservative leader, Rishi Sunak. Even with her exit, Sturgeon caused trouble for the Tories.