January 29, 2024 - 10:00am

For years, it seemed as though the SNP must have tapped into that Dorian Gray magic. No matter how badly it governed, no matter how many scandals beset it, the Nationalists’ opinion polling just refused to budge. Was there a haunted painting somewhere, accruing the evidence of the party’s 17 years in office?

If so, someone at SNP HQ must finally have lifted the curtain, for the tide is well and truly going out. At the weekend, Scottish Labour surged to its strongest polling lead over the Nats in 10 years, while the same poll found that a majority of Scots no longer trust Nicola Sturgeon.

These two stories are linked by more than just the general slide in the SNP’s ratings. While it was Alex Salmond who led the party through the independence referendum in 2014, it was Sturgeon who turned it into the hegemonic force that we have known for the past decade.

Taking over from her predecessor in the wake of the defeat, Sturgeon oversaw the successful rolling of the Yes campaign into the Nationalist machine. She also projected a new, more explicitly social-democratic vision of the party that was perfectly pitched to disembowel Labour, as the SNP did at the 2015 general election.

For years, Sturgeon’s undoubted prowess as a communicator was a shield protecting her party from the corrosion that normally besets any government which has been in office for the best part of two decades.

No longer. If her defeat on the controversial Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill showed that Sturgeon was politically mortal, subsequent events have demolished her reputation. 

Voters will not soon forget the pictures of police officers digging up her garden, looking for evidence in a long-running fraud investigation into a missing £600,000 independence fighting fund. Nor their seizure of a luxury motorhome from her mother-in-law’s driveway.

More recently, the Covid inquiry has brutally exposed the secretive methods of the Scottish Government under her leadership, with some bookies even taking bets on how often Sturgeon will obfuscate when questioned. This will be no surprise to those who followed the inquiry into the Scottish Government’s botched handling of sexual misconduct allegations against Salmond, of course. But as Boris Johnson also discovered, the pandemic is treated a lot more seriously.

All this comes on top of a whole raft of other factors — most obviously the woeful record of the Scottish Government, but also waning faith on the part of the separatist faithful that independence is happening anytime soon — to undermine the pillars upon which the SNP’s recent hegemony rests.

As it stands, Labour looks set to recapture 20 or more seats in Scotland at the next election. To add insult to injury, it looks like there won’t even be a repeat of the Conservatives’ 1997 wipeout. Even pessimistic polls project them holding a few seats, and some Tory sources suggest they might even make gains in several constituencies where they are best-placed to challenge the Nats.

We’re a long way from a return to the days when the SNP had only six seats. But even so, such a result would represent a remarkable normalisation of British politics in Scotland, only a few years after many thought the Brexit vote made a second referendum, and Scottish independence, all but inevitable.

The SNP would then have to make a hard choice: go all-in on the fight against Labour in an effort to remain the party Sturgeon built, or pivot Rightwards to try and wrest their old tartan-Tory heartlands back from the Conservatives.

With Labour recovered in Scotland, and the Tories dug in with the most determined anti-independence voters, neither will be an easy road.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.