TWO quotes, of contrasting degrees of credibility, have generated lots of Holyrood headlines in recent days. The first came from an interview Nicola Sturgeon gave to the Financial Times.
Besides a clumsy reference to “demographics” assisting the independence cause – a common Nationalist trope about younger Yessers inexorably replacing elderly No voters as death catches up with the latter – the First Minister also reckoned time would help her out.
She wasn’t sure how exactly it would overcome the UK Government’s flat refusal on Indyref2, but somehow or other time would erode Westminster resistance and things would all work out splendidly in her favour.
“I can’t look ahead and tell you exactly how this constitutional impasse is going to resolve itself, but it will resolve itself,” she said, illuminating nothing and no one.
“I’ve got democracy on my side . . . if they [Westminster] think it’s about playing a waiting game, I’ve probably got time on my side as well.”
The other quote came from the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, who was decidedly unconvinced by Ms Sturgeon’s claim.
Alex Cole-Hamilton predicted she wouldn’t make it to the next Holyrood election, and would quit for a quieter life away from SNP feuds, perhaps in the groves of academe stateside.
“I think it’s hard to see how she leads the SNP into the next election,” he mused in a Q&A with the media ahead of his party’s conference.
“She’s looked knackered for a long time, she’s looked exhausted… I think the edifice of power and support [for the SNP] will crumble when she goes.”
The blunt description of the FM prompted a lot of tutting from the SNP. But the only thing unusual about Mr Cole-Hamilton’s remark was that it was said on the record.
It is being said in private at Holyrood, including by Ms Sturgeon’s supporters, all the time. The toll of governing in a pandemic is visible for all to see, even if not all will say it.
Nor did Mr Cole-Hamilton break new ground on the question of Ms Sturgeon’s shelf-life. The subject has become the drumbeat of the new parliamentary term. When will she go? How long has she got? Who’s next?
The general consensus is that, despite the First Minister counting on it, time is not going to be on her side.
Were she to hang on to the 2026 election, as she says she will, she will have been First Minister just forty days shy of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister.
Mrs Thatcher was lucky to last eleven and a half years, and Ms Sturgeon would be too.
But Ms Sturgeon would also be asking the country to give her another five years in Bute House.
The governments that Mrs Thatcher and her successor John Major led lasted a total of eighteen years.
Major realised as soon as he’d won the 1992 election at the thirteen-year point that the Tories had “pulled the elastic as far as it would go” and wouldn’t get re-elected in 1997.
The SNP government will be nineteen years old by 2026, and be asking to reach twenty-four. ‘Go on, folks, it’s only a quarter of a century.’ Those are unprecedented numbers.
Ms Sturgeon might, I suppose, make it to 2026, and she might, I suppose, secure the SNP power to 2031. Then again, the public might do what it usually does, and prefer a change.
Time for a change, after all, was the theme the SNP itself used to gain power in 2007, when it painted the Labour-LibDem executive as clapped out after a mere eight years.
It’s not just the opposition who reckon Ms Sturgeon’s administration is showing its age.
One SNP old hand said it felt becalmed since May’s election.
“People in the party think the government is knackered. We’ve just won an election, so you’d think there would be more vim and vigour. But it looks like a continuation of the same tiredness. There’s nothing new. There’s nothing happening at all. If anything, it feels as if things have regressed. It’s almost like there was no election. There’s just this sense of drift.”
So Mr Cole-Hamilton’s comment was not gratuitous, but calculated.
He was trying to plant a seed about Ms Sturgeon’s waning effectiveness in office, in the hope that voters come to see her as the knackered face of a knackered government, a knackered party, and a knackered movement.
Ms Sturgeon knows there are no escape clauses in the laws of political gravity. Rather than go out messily in 2026, she may calculate her best shot at a dignified exit is to notch up a decade in office in November 2024, then give her successor 18 months to bed in for the coming election.
At which point, if he’s still in the game, I would expect Alex Salmond to try and grab his chance.
Never again, he could say, can the SNP and the Yes movement have a leader in power for so long, with so many mandates, and not even hold a referendum, never mind win one.
Therefore it cannot have a new leader cut from the same cloth.
Ms Sturgeon’s cabinet colleagues went along with her through all those wasted years. Scotland’s destiny demands a different, more purposeful leader and, guess what, here I am.
Now, I’m not saying Mr Salmond would pull it off, or even come close. He remains ballot box poison.
But his criticism and his argument could resonate with a lot of unhappy activists, and make life hell for Ms Sturgeon’s successor just as the SNP asks voters for that quarter century.
It may not be on the First Minister’s side, but the ticking of the clock is going to make for fascinating politics.