cotland’s independence movement stood at a crossroads last night, as Unionist parties considered how Nicola Sturgeon’s snap resignation may transform the UK’s political landscape at the next general election.
Ms Sturgeon shocked Holyrood on Wednesday after she told a hastily arranged press conference she was to quit.
The SNP leader insisted recent political challenges, such as the UK Government’s decision to halt its gender recognition reforms, had not influenced the decision.
The Labour Party mulled over the opportunity Ms Sturgeon’s departure could present it at the next UK-wide election, as winning Scottish constituencies could tip the balance further in its favour at Westminster.
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar suggested there was now a belief in Scotland that a UK Labour government was possible for the first time since the party lost power in 2010.
At the same time, he said it would require the party to make “significant gains” in Scotland at the next general election – expected in a little over 12 months – for that to happen.
“For 12 years I don’t think people in Scotland have believed that a Labour UK government was possible. I think that is changing now. I think people believe a UK Labour government is possible,” he told BBC.
Labour’s long-standing stranglehold on Scotland in Westminster elections came to an abrupt end in 2015 when it was all but wiped out in an SNP landslide.
Ms Sturgeon’s exit comes at a fortuitous time for Labour, which is due to hold its party conference this coming weekend.
The Scottish Tories meanwhile had no warm words for the departing First Minister, with the party leader Douglas Ross insisting Ms Sturgeon had “presided over a decade of division and decay in Scotland”.
Mr Ross also rubbished claims that Labour could win across Scotland at the next general election.
He told the BBC’s Newsnight: “Labour currently have one MP in the whole of Scotland, the Conservatives have six. We are the second biggest party at Holyrood, we are the second biggest Scottish party represented at Westminster.
“We are the the clear challengers to the SNP in multiple seats across Scotland.”
The Conservatives at Westminster tried to strike a more cordial tone, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak paying tribute to Ms Sturgeon’s “long-standing service”.
But his Scottish Secretary, Alister Jack, said her resignation was “a welcome opportunity for the Scottish Government to change course, and to drop its divisive obsession with independence”.
The SNP, which Ms Sturgeon has led for eight years, will meet soon to discuss a timetable for the election of a new leader.
SNP president Michael Russell said he expected that process to be “shortened” and there to be a “contested election”.
Though there is no obvious candidate to succeed the outgoing First Minister, potential candidates include External Affairs Secretary Angus Robertson, Secretary for Finance and Economy Kate Forbes, and deputy first minister John Swinney.
The party is expected to hold a special conference this spring to decide a way forward for a second independence referendum.
Ms Sturgeon’s resignation follows a series of political challenges in recent months as her Government sought to push through gender reforms, only for them to be blocked by Westminster.
She insisted the row surrounding a transgender double rapist being sent to a women’s jail “wasn’t the final straw”, but said it is “time for someone else” to lead the party.
Ms Sturgeon acknowledged the “choppy waters”, but insisted her resignation was not in response to the “latest period of pressure”.
“This decision comes from a deeper and longer-term assessment,” the 52-year-old said.
“In my head and in my heart I know that time is now. That it’s right for me, for my party and my country,” she told reporters at Bute House, her official residence.
The SNP’s vote share in opinion polls in Scotland has dipped in recent months, though the party remains ahead of its rivals across the board.
While the SNP enjoyed ratings in the high 40s or low 50s for much of the period after the December 2019 election and through the pandemic, in 2022 the figures started to drift downwards, briefly touching 42% in April and 41% in November.
This was paralleled by a rise in support for Labour, whose ratings had hovered around 20% for much of the previous two years, but which began to see an increase from early 2022.
The latest monthly average puts the SNP on 43%, Labour on 30%, the Conservatives on 16% and the Liberal Democrats on 6%.
At the 2019 general election, the SNP won 45% of the vote in Scotland, with the Tories on 25%, Labour on 19% and the Lib Dems on 10%.