Nicola Sturgeon exits with typical grace - but leaves a massive headache for the SNP

Nicola Sturgeon has gone from the young pretender to the dominant personality in Scottish politics (Images: Getty / Mark Hall)Nicola Sturgeon has gone from the young pretender to the dominant personality in Scottish politics (Images: Getty / Mark Hall)
Nicola Sturgeon has gone from the young pretender to the dominant personality in Scottish politics (Images: Getty / Mark Hall)
Scotland's first female and longest-serving First Minister has stepped down with dignity - but she leaves some major challenges for her successor, writes Nick Mitchell

There was no point-scoring, no I-told-you-so’s, no woe-is-me stuff. Nicola Sturgeon delivered a polished and personal resignation speech that was absolutely typical of her eight years in leadership.

Love her or loathe her - and she doesn’t tend to inspire ambivalence - it would be hard to deny that she is one of the best political operators - and communicators - of her generation.

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As you’d expect, it was far more Jacinda Ardern than Liz Truss. It was a heartfelt and frank admission that the job had become too much, too all-consuming. The 52-year-old cited the “brutality” of being Scotland’s First Minister, of not being able to spend time with her niece and nephew, of not being able to just go for a walk or a coffee without planning ahead.

She didn’t use the word “burnout”, but it was clear that she has just had enough. She said she’s tired of never being “off duty” and having “virtually no privacy”.

However, she is a politician, and this wasn’t a speech that was devoid of political messaging. Far from it.

Sturgeon’s decision to brand the next UK general election a “de facto referendum” has divided her followers. She said today that she never pretended that the approach is “perfect” - but clearly reading between the lines it’s very far from perfect, both for her and the independence cause. The fact that she chose to reference her election stance in this resignation speech reveals how big a part it has played in her decision to stand aside, to make way for not just a new leader but potentially a new strategy for the SNP.

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While she is quite right that her surprise exit allows her party to have this debate on its future more openly, the truth is that she leaves the SNP in a bit of a mess. Following on from what many regarded as a foolhardy move with the ‘de facto referendum’, the Gender Recognition Bill had become a sharp thorn in her side, a rare example of Sturgeon’s tactical abilities misfiring badly. She had wanted the legislation to form part of her lasting legacy, but ultimately it has contributed to her demise.

The other huge challenge for the SNP is to find a leader capable of filling her shoes. Sturgeon has dominated Scottish politics for over a decade, first alongside her mentor Alex Salmond during the heady days of the 2014 indyref campaign, and since then as the nation’s first female leader, emerging unscathed even as the scandal engulfing her predecessor threatened to bring her down at various points.

Despite the fact that her approval ratings have fallen to their lowest ever levels since the bitter row over transgender rights, Sturgeon remains an almost impossible act to follow. That’s not because she got everything right of course, but rather because she’s so obviously still the supernova in the firmament of Scottish politics.

And like all succession moments, it’s not just about who is best for the job - it’s about who actually wants it. Because whoever moves into Bute House will have a daunting challenge. The SNP, tired and testy after so much time in power without getting any closer to its prize of independence, needs a leader who can both energise the base and win over the less committed voters, the ones who could make the real difference.

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In her speech, Sturgeon said the push for Scottish independence was “bigger than any one individual”. But movements need leaders, and her successor will have to emerge from Sturgeon’s shadow with the same confidence and distinction that she found, post-Salmond.

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