Unionists sense the end of ‘peak Sturgeon’

Good morning, Robert Shrimsley here. Today I’ll take a look at why Unionists think that Scotland might have passed “peak Sturgeon” and assess one of the unfortunate side-effects of Rishi’s reshuffle.

Like a Sturgeon, trashed for the very first time

There’s not a lot cheering Conservatives at the moment — aside from the news that Boris Johnson has already made nearly £5mn since leaving office. At this rate he’ll soon be able to afford his own house.

But one bright spot has been the torrid fortnight endured by Nicola Sturgeon. The Scottish first minister’s transgender rights legislation was sideswiped by the story of Isla Bryson, who was convicted of raping two women before transitioning but was remanded in a women’s prison while awaiting sentencing. As our Scotland correspondent Lukanyo Mnyanda reports in this excellent deep dive, the incident has knocked the normally sure-footed Sturgeon badly off-balance. Her efforts to step out of the media minefield while preserving the integrity of her legislation has led to some convoluted thinking, mercilessly mocked by Alex Massie who wrote in the Times that there were now three genders in Scotland: “male, female and rapist”.

The issue has broader importance because the Conservative government in Westminster chose this issue for the use of its veto powers on Scottish legislation. That offered Sturgeon one of her favourite arguments, that the will of the Scottish people was being overruled from Westminster.

But here’s the snag. For once, Scots might be on Westminster’s side. An Ipsos poll at the end of January put support for London’s actions on 50 per cent against 33 per cent, with even close to a third of SNP supporters saying they were glad Westminster had acted.

The same poll also saw a big fall in Sturgeon’s favourability ratings:

Meanwhile, a YouGov poll found a slide in support for the SNP and a reversal of recent leads in the backing of Scottish independence, with support for secession down six percentage points from 53 per cent on December 9.

There are so many caveats to enter here. The SNP remains by some distance the most popular party and even this poll puts support for independence at 47 per cent. As long as independence is the defining issue in Scottish politics there is a high floor on how far the SNP can fall.

But Unionists are also cheering at the relatively rare sight of the Scottish media giving the first minister a hard time over the bizarre story of her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, lending the party £107,620. The loan was not declared to the Electoral Commission until more than a year later, in breach of election finance rules which say all loans of £7,500 or more must be declared within 30 days of the quarter in which they are given. What made the story more odd is Sturgeon’s claim that she could “not recall” when she found out about the loan, because the resources “belonged to him”. One chuckling Conservative noted: “I think I’d at least mention it to my wife if I was about to spend £100k on something.”

And this comes on top of the revolt against Sturgeon’s iron grip on the party by her Westminster MPs, who in December replaced her ally Ian Blackford, as Commons leader, with very much not-her-ally Stephen Flynn. With Labour rising in the polls, there are also serious doubts about her judgment in suggesting the next general election could be a de facto referendum on independence.

The cumulative effect is to leave Unionists wondering if we have hit “peak Sturgeon”. The first minister has ruthlessly ruled her party for years, wiping out all challengers. Suddenly opponents sense the sheen coming off one of the SNP’s greatest assets.

It is far too soon to call the issue. Lest Tories get too cheerful, an MRP poll for the Telegraph shows them having fewer seats than the SNP after the next election. Sturgeon is a supreme operator and we will need a few more months before we know if this is a squall or storm.

For all the heat around trans rights, the issue is not likely to be one which changes how people feel about independence. There is no immediate sign of a direct challenge coming and she has overcome major setbacks before. But even the most effective leaders have a shelf life and once the façade of invulnerability fades things can move very fast.

House swap

One of the lesser noted aspects of Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle is that the promotion of Lucy Frazer to culture secretary means the government is now on its fifth housing minister of the year. Not so shocking perhaps when you remember we are also on our third prime minister and fourth chancellor.

But the job of housing minister is one which has recorded exceptional turnover. Half of the last 15 occupants have been promoted into the top team. I wrote about the rapid turnover in this role way back in 2018 just after Dominic Raab moved on up. And the situation has got worse. There have been another eight ministers since then, only one of them spending more than a year in post. The BBC has a nice list here.

One of the main reasons is that the job has long been regarded as a stepping stone to cabinet. So in a time of government turmoil this particular ministerial carousel spins especially fast. Lots of departments will have seen similar upheaval in the past year but as the list shows, this has been true for housing for much longer.

Yet this is a job where long-term political direction is especially important. It takes more time than many ministers have had just to master the brief and far longer to drive through slow-moving change. There is always the risk of interest group capture after a while but the most effective ministers in any department are those who have been around long enough to spot the bear trap and know which levers to pull. Many recent housing ministers are probably still trying to find the coffee machine. In contrast, there have been only five schools ministers since 2010 and three of those rotations have been held by Nick Gibb. (He took a year out as minister for childcare and school reform).

It would be absurd to draw a straight line between the high turnover and state failure to move faster on housebuilding, cladding and a variety of other essential issues. The government remains well short of its goal of 300,000 new homes a year. There are battles with the Treasury over funding and Tory backbenchers over planning reform to consider.

Since the department is headed by Michael Gove, generally acknowledged as one of the most effective secretaries of state, it is not entirely underpowered. But the scale of ministerial upheaval is entirely at odds with the need for long-term thinking, structural reform. So either leaders think the brief is not very important or that it doesn’t really matter who does it. Take your pick.

Now try this

I’ve just started reading Nick Thomas-Symonds’ very enjoyable biography of Harold Wilson, subtitled The Winner. It came out last year and is notable for a number of reasons. For one thing Keir Starmer once cited Wilson as his model Labour leader (in the days before he felt it was OK to talk approvingly of Tony Blair). And for another, Thomas-Symonds is not only a historian but a member of the shadow cabinet and close to Starmer, so fun subtexts are the potential messages to today’s party melded in with the history.

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