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LONDON — A bitter feud between Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond is about to burst into the open — and it could bring down the cause of independence in the process.
Sturgeon has been forced on to the defensive after allegations that the Scottish government she leads mishandled sexual assault allegations made by multiple women against Salmond. He was cleared of the charges by a court last year, but has launched a campaign of revenge against his successor, whom he accuses of misleading parliament.
If that charge sticks then she would likely find it hard to remain as first minister, leaving the Scottish National Party to fight crucial Scottish Parliament elections in May without a leader seen as an important component of the party’s appeal.
Salmond was due to appear before a Scottish parliamentary inquiry on Tuesday, but pulled out over the committee’s refusal to discuss evidence he says supports his case. Sturgeon is scheduled to mount her defense at a hearing next week.
A key issue for the inquiry is precisely when Sturgeon knew of the allegations against her former mentor, with past evidence she gave to the Holyrood inquiry now called into question. On Monday, she got a taste of what is to come when SNP Chief Executive Peter Murrell — who is also Sturgeon’s husband — was accused of misleading MSPs over what he knew.
Scottish Labour’s deputy leader Jackie Baillie pulled no punches, accusing Murrell of obstructing the committee’s work and “dancing on the head of a pin” with his evidence.
If Sturgeon is taken down by her former ally, it could put the dream of Scottish independence in jeopardy at a crucial moment. The SNP needs a majority at the Scottish parliament elections in May to bolster its mandate for a second independence referendum. Even some in the SNP’s ranks admit privately that the loss of Sturgeon at the helm could scupper the whole plan. That would be a dramatic turnaround after 20 consecutive polls showing a lead for independence.
One serving SNP official said it would be “disastrous” for the party to head into the election with a succession battle raging. If the party fails to win a majority, a second referendum “would be off the agenda completely, because unionists would interpret that as a defeat for the SNP — which it would be,” the person said. “That would lead to a massive regrouping in the party, and from there, anything would be possible.”
The risks of losing a well-liked leader, whose high approval ratings have been boosted further by her handling of the coronavirus pandemic, are stark. A poll by JL Partners for POLITICO in September found 38 percent of swing voters would be less likely to vote for independence if Sturgeon was toppled, compared with 28 percent who would be more likely — a gap of 10 points.
“The current lead for independence is very much linked to Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity and also her handling of the coronavirus pandemic,” said James Johnson, co-founder of JL Partners and a former pollster for Downing Street. “With Sturgeon no longer first minister … I would expect some re-evaluation of independence by swing voters and ‘advantage Yes’ to recede in the polls,” he added.
But senior SNP figures on both sides of the Salmond/Sturgeon feud insist that the separatist cause is bigger than any one person.
“It’s not as if Nicola Sturgeon came along and suddenly people started to believe in independence,” said a senior SNP official. “The rising tide of support for an independent Scotland has been evident for a very long time.”
The person added: “If Westminster politicians, [U.K. Prime Minister] Boris Johnson or anyone else on the other side of the debate, somehow thinks that the cause of Scottish independence or the desire for independence is somehow inexplicably, magically linked to Nicola Sturgeon or to any one politician, then they’re deluding themselves.”
One SNP MP who said Sturgeon looks vulnerable agrees. “When people switch on to independence in Scotland, they don’t switch off. Once people are invested in the wisdom of independence, it’s usually a one-way street.”
The same person argued the self-preservation instinct of the SNP will kick in if needed. “The SNP are quick to identify enemies of Scotland as being enemies of the SNP,” they argued. “We’re very good at circling the wagons.”
Others point out that the Salmond row has so far had little cut-through with voters. “Most people aren’t noticing it,” said SNP MP and Westminster culture spokesman John Nicolson, who backs Sturgeon. “All polling shows it’s not having any effect whatsoever on how people either see the SNP or how they see the constitutional future of Scotland.”
With Sturgeon potentially vulnerable, however, the lack of a clear successor puts the SNP in a precarious situation.
Numerous SNP figures tip Scotland’s Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, Justice Minister Humza Yousaf and the party’s former Westminster Leader Angus Robertson as possible names in the frame — but all are a long way from the heir-apparent status that Sturgeon enjoyed when she took over from Salmond in 2014.
Other names floated include Trade Minister Ivan McKee, Transport Secretary Michael Matheson and the pro-Salmond MP Joanna Cherry — who was recently sacked from the party’s Westminster front bench. Some assume Deputy First Minister John Swinney would act as an interim leader ahead of the Holyrood elections. “Apart from Alex Salmond, no one is really aware of anyone else out there in the SNP ranks,” said Johnson, the pollster.
Some in camp Sturgeon suspect Salmond is attempting his own SNP power-grab. One MP pointed to the “disruption” from Salmond’s allies when Swinney served an ill-fated stint as leader in the early 2000s, which facilitated the first minister’s return to the helm. “You could be forgiven for thinking in some ways that history was repeating itself — although the challenge is that he is not able to do it from inside the party, so perhaps has sought proxies,” the MP said.
Others argue a row about transgender rights, which again pits Salmondites against Sturgeonites, is being weaponized to destabilize Sturgeon and split SNP support against her.
Factional warfare in the SNP might split the independence vote and bring down Sturgeon, setting the independence drive back, but the opposition isn’t banking on it.
“You can’t be complacent and think it will turn the tide of nationalism or significantly diminish the popularity of SNP,” one Scottish Tory MP said. “The Scottish Conservatives will be pinning their hopes not on the SNP imploding but on making a strong case for not having another independence referendum.”