Since the start of 2020, opinion polls have given “Yes” campaigners a consistent lead over their unionist rivals. One recent survey predicted a total reversal of the 2014 referendum result — 55 percent in favour of separation, versus 45 percent against. Much of this swing is tied to Brexit – as many Scots feel like they have been dragged out of the European Union against their will.
However, the coronavirus emergency also seems to have helped their case, with the SNP recently boasting “record” support for their party.
According to political analyst Sir John Curtice, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has “played the politics” of the pandemic more adeptly than Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
He said: “The public think that Nicola Sturgeon has handled the coronavirus crisis brilliantly, and they think Boris Johnson has done badly.
“That is not unique to those who voted No in 2014, or those who voted Leave in 2016. In all groups, Sturgeon is well ahead of Johnson.”
Despite the polls painting a positive picture for Ms Sturgeon, according to political commentator and former Scottish policy adviser Gerald Warner, this image of success and invulnerability could easily crumble.
SNP civil war laid bare: Sturgeon’s ‘vendetta with Salmond could blow nationalists apart’
Support for the SNP has been steadily rising
In a recent report, Mr Warner argued it is threatened on two fronts.
He wrote: “The first is the unravelling of SNP public policies; the second, and more damaging, is the witches’ cauldron of dissent, hate and revenge boiling just below the surface of SNP politics, with the party in a state of internecine civil war.
“The failure of SNP policies on education (on which Nicola Sturgeon asked to be judged) and health have been rehearsed many times before. To the inadequacies of SNP delivery in the workaday operation of healthcare there is now being added the emerging exposure of the flaws in its response to the pandemic. The chaos at Scottish universities, most notably Glasgow, at the very start of the academic year, was a predicted and avoidable disaster.
“Few governments, in the long term, emerge creditably from a pandemic and the SNP is unlikely to prove an exception.
“Yet what is more likely to sink this party, riding so high on the political tide for the time being, is its subterranean internal dissensions.
“Some of those are discernible even at the surface level of policy.”
Mr Warner, who worked as policy adviser for Tory minister Michael Forsyth when he was Scottish Secretary in the Nineties, claimed that the “real existential threat” to the SNP is the feud between Ms Sturgeon and her predecessor, Alex Salmond.
He explained: “When Alex Salmond was acquitted on 14 charges of sexual misconduct last March, under normal circumstances that event would almost exclusively have dominated Scottish news schedules for a month. But circumstances were not normal, due to the escalating coronavirus pandemic, so it received almost perfunctory attention. That was a great relief to the SNP leadership, but that relief may not prove enduring.
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Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond
“It is common currency that Alex Salmond left the High Court in Edinburgh nursing sentiments that make the vengeful resolution of Edmond Dantès on his escape from the Château d’If seem anodyne by comparison.
“Mr Salmond’s supporters are determined to take revenge on Ms Sturgeon and her faction: if one encounters a Scot defying the official consensus by expressing reservations regarding Ms Sturgeon, that is probably a unionist; but anyone voicing venomous hatred of the First Minister is undoubtedly a member of the SNP (Salmondista Tendency).”
The consequences of this, Mr Warner said, are already increasingly visible.
He continued: “Joanna Cherry, fellow litigant with Gina Miller on prorogation, fancied standing for Ruth Davidson’s vacated seat at Holyrood. But Cherry is a Salmondista, so the Sturgeonite-controlled NEC invented a rule requiring MPs to give up their Westminster seats if nominated to contest a Holyrood constituency. Cherry backed down, leaving the way clear for Angus Robertson, of the Sturgeon faction.”
As she stood down in February, Ms Cherry said in a statement: “It is unprecedented in our party’s history of dual mandates to demand that a parliamentarian make themselves and their constituency staff unemployed in order to be eligible to be a candidate.
“It is particularly unreasonable to demand this in the middle of a pandemic.
“I am not prepared to do it and so unless circumstances change, I won’t be seeking nomination for Holyrood in this election.”
Party member Simon Ritchie hit out at Ms Sturgeon, writing on Twitter: “The leaked SNP NEC plan to charge candidates £10,000 for standing as a candidate when they hold a seat in a different Parliament is purely to stop Joanna Cherry.
“That’s why it’s being considered now. It’s so transparent as to be absurd.”
Mr Warner added: “The NEC overreached itself in decreeing women-only shortlists for all Holyrood seats where a sitting SNP MSP was standing down.
“James Dornan, in Glasgow Cathcart, decided to stand again and saw off the NEC. Although the Salmond/Sturgeon feud is fundamentally personal, it has assumed an ideological tone whereby the Sturgeon camp is more woke on social issues, but more realistic on the timing of a second independence referendum, while the Salmond faction is less culturally Marxist and more fundamentalist in demanding a second referendum yesterday.
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SNP MP Joanna Cherry
“Currently the Salmondistas are attacking Ms Sturgeon through her husband, Peter Murrell, who is also chief executive of the SNP.
“Kenny MacAskill, former justice minister and grand vizier to Mr Salmond, received anonymously a document containing WhatsApp messages allegedly showing Mr Murrell pressing for police action against Mr Salmond, which are becoming a core issue in the investigation into the Scottish Government’s handling of the Salmond case.”
Ms Sturgeon’s evidence to the Holyrood inquiry into the “Salmond affair” was published this week – more than two months after she submitted it.
It includes five pages of WhatsApp messages sent between Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon, in which he complains about a Scottish Government sexual misconduct probe into him.
She said the investigation had caused her “a great deal of personal anguish, and resulted in the breakdown of a relationship that had been very important to me, politically and personally, for most of my life”.
Meanwhile, yesterday, Mr Murrell admitted sending WhatsApp messages appearing to back police and prosecution action against Mr Salmond.
Alex Cole-Hamilton, Liberal Democrat MSP who sits on the committee of MSPs investigating the Scottish Government’s handling of harassment claims made against Mr Salmond, said earlier this month: “One of the key focal points of our committee’s work is whether there was a conspiracy to get Mr Salmond and to destroy his career with the new procedure [the Scottish Government’s new rules for dealing with harassment claims against ministers]. These messages appear to lend significant credence to that point of view.
“If they are real it makes Mr Murrell’s assertion that Ms Sturgeon and he never discussed the Government complaint highly implausible.”
In evidence submitted to the Holyrood inquiry, Mr Murrell said he did not know that complaints had been made against Mr Salmond under the Scottish Government procedure until the matter became public in August 2018.
He did know about meetings between Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond at their family home on April 2 and July 14, 2018. In his submission, Mr Murrell said he had “the sense that something serious was being discussed”.
However, he said his wife told him she could not discuss the details and he did not press her further on it.
Mr Warner concluded for his piece on Reaction: “If such a conspiracy were to be proved, it would blow the SNP apart.
“To nationalists, Mr Salmond is the man who led them from a taxi-load of MPs at Westminster to being the natural party of Scottish Government and to an independence referendum in 2014. To the faithful, he is anointed.”