The search for a new first minister of Scotland is underway after Nicola Sturgeon decided to stand down.
The SNP leader, who made the surprise announcement after more than eight years in the job, plans to remain in office until her successor is elected.
As speculation begins about the runners and riders for the role, questions are also being asked about the impact Sturgeon’s impending departure will have on her party – with one SNP MP telling Politico they doubted whether the party itself will survive.
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What did the papers say?
The surprise departure is “seen as a game changer” for Labour as the party “sets its sights on the next general election”, said the Mirror. Party insiders hope “the end of her nine years leading the Scottish National Party will kick-start Labour’s revival north of the border”.
The mood around Anas Sarwar, the Labour leader in Scotland, is “buoyant”, wrote The New Statesman’s deputy political editor, Rachel Wearmouth, because Labour MSPs believe Sarwar is “well placed to build a coalition of soft independence voters and unionists”.
A Labour source told Wearmouth that “it’s slowly dawning on members of Scottish National Party that they’re in a political cul de sac” because “they’ve had decades to keep a sustained majority for independence in Scotland” and “they’ve blown it”.
If the new leader “fails to create the strength of feeling” generated by Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond then the SNP’s “grip on Scottish politics might start to loosen, to the benefit of unionists and the Labour Party”, said Yahoo News.
Westminster Tories have also predicted the downfall of Sturgeon’s party, reported The Times. Her resignation shows that the SNP are “played out”, said Neil O’Brien, a health minister.
In the face of these developments, some are posing existential questions about the nationalist party. Asked if the party could survive without her, an SNP MP described as “not a dyed-in-the-wool Sturgeon backer” told Politico: “I doubt it.”
However, wrote professor of politics and polling expert John Curtice in The Scotsman, the last 15 months have “illustrated how relatively difficult it remains for the [Labour] party to win over nationalist supporters”. Labour have failed so far to persuade Yes voters to join their “enterprise” of gaining more powers for Holyrood and a better relationship with Westminster.
“If I were in Labour’s shoes, I would be a little wary of being too cock-a-hoop about it,” Nicola McEwan, professor of territorial politics at the University of Edinburgh, told Politico’s London Playbook. “The SNP is a formidable electoral machine and they haven’t got to where they’ve got to purely on the back of Nicola Sturgeon. It’s much more than that.”
A small snap poll for Find Out Now overnight found that 16% of respondents were less likely to vote SNP after Sturgeon’s resignation – with 9% saying they are now more likely to do so.
The SNP’s national executive will meet to decide the timetable for a leadership race with the winner automatically becoming Scotland’s next first minister.
The party will also now decide how much of Sturgeon’s vision it wants to retain. Her plans to change the law on gender self-identification are “now set to be ditched” by the party, said The Telegraph.
A special SNP conference on independence due to take place next month could be postponed, the Daily Record reported. Stephen Flynn, the SNP leader at Westminster, said: “I think it’s sensible that we do hit the pause button on that conference and allow the new leader the opportunity to set out their vision.”
Prior to Sturgeon’s resignation, The Times’s Kenny Farquharson predicted that the planned conference would be a “watershed moment for Scottish nationalism”, and a test of whether the SNP is a “mainstream party with a serious plan for independence or a rabble looking for a rammy”.
He predicted a “tonsil-jangling roar” as rival party members thrash out their differences and Politico agreed that a “bunfight” is on the cards.
As the party members discuss whether to opt for a de facto referendum, or a call for a reconvened Yes campaign, Scottish nationalism is “looking for a last ditch to die in”, added Farquharson. “On March 19 it may just find one.”
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