It was never going to be a vintage SNP conference without the adoring crowds, saltire waving and back-stabbing bonhomie. But going virtual for the first time was an experience that few in the party, least of all its leader, would want to repeat.
Stripped of all spectacle, on and off stage, the event was reduced to a series of discordant soundbites, few of which cast the first minister in a good light.
Most damaging was Joanna Cherry, the MP for Edinburgh South West, who warned about “the cult of leader” and urged party bosses to adopt a more collegiate style. The SNP needed a “Plan B” if Boris Johnson refused requests for a second independence referendum, said Cherry, who also demanded Sturgeon address bullying within the party.
With the nationalists openly bickering, it was left to Ian Blackford, as divisive a character as Cherry, to plead for party unity over the strategy for independence. The Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP, and SNP leader in the Commons, called for calm from those colleagues hoping to rush into a referendum without the backing of Boris Johnson’s government.
Meanwhile, the rank and file were in uproar after their proposed resolutions were apparently binned. Scrapping the SNP conference might have been better, one told an SNP newspaper.
‘Kippered by Andrew Marr’
For Sturgeon, though, the lowest point came away from the conference itself and where she is usually at her most confident, on the BBC. In a much-publicised confrontation, she was kippered by Andrew Marr over her record on Covid, on the education attainment gap, and crucially over what she knew and when in the Alex Salmond affair.
Since March, she has had a platform provided by BBC Scotland to flaunt her leadership credentials in daily Covid briefings. These have widely been seen as a success for both her and her cause, with support for separation growing throughout the coronavirus crisis. Her presentation skills are second to none, as Marr conceded, before challenging the facade she’s created.
On the pandemic, Scotland has had a death rate almost a quarter higher than England’s – tragically, 47% of Scots died of the virus in care homes compared with 30% in England. On schools, she has failed to bridge the chasm between the richest and poorest pupils despite making education a priority five years ago.
But the killer blow came when he played a clip of his 2018 interview with Sturgeon, during which she claimed she had known about complaints against her predecessor only in April that year. It has later transpired that she became aware of the sexual misconduct allegations as early as November 2017, and also discussed them in March 2018.
This left her little wriggle room under Marr’s spotlight and she was clearly unnerved when he told her there was “a gap between how you present yourself and what is really going on in Scotland”.
She went on to deliver her end-of-conference speech on Monday, memorable for its pre-election bribes in the shape of £500 gifts to NHS staff and £100 grants to low-income families. None of that would be doable, of course, without the deep pockets of the Treasury in London, which has provided more than £8.2 billion in extra funding to the Scottish Government this year. But Sturgeon managed to score easy political points against the deeply unpopular (particularly in Scotland) prime minister. And then, on cue, she said if the people of Scotland voted her back into power, she would hold a new independence referendum in the “early part” of the new Holyrood term.
‘Ugly constitutional battle’
The prospect of an ugly constitutional battle when Scotland may still be battling Covid, or at least its economic consequences, is unlikely to appeal to many Scots, even those currently taken in by Sturgeon’s thespian skills.
But it buys her time with the party. And then what? If the SNP wins next May’s election, as it is on course to do, she will be under pressure to honour her secession promise. Given the weekend’s sniping between the Sturgeon and Salmond factions, there will be all-out war if she shows any hint of hesitation.
Is she thinking that far ahead? Her pledge on a second referendum was vague, almost as if she knows now that she is not going to be the one to see it through. If she has lied over Salmond, and she can’t conjure up a plausible excuse, her position will suddenly become very vulnerable.
She won’t go quietly, so we should expect much more mischief-making, mostly at Johnson’s expense, probably involving large sums of UK money, and other legacy enhancing larks, until the curtain closes on a top act, but definitely an act.