In times gone by, Queen of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon could have expected standing ovations and lots of opportunities for selfies and self-promotion at the SNP's annual conference. Not this year. 2020 continued its mean girls reputation by serving up to the First Minister a platter of hostile media interviews, a critical front-page article by an SNP MP in The Times and her name trending on twitter for all the wrong reasons. Andrew Marr, in an interview which is unlikely to be forgotten even by a woman who seems to have made forgetfulness a habit recently, told her that "there is a gap between how you present yourself, which you do very well, and what is actually going on in Scotland". One of the most important manifestations of this gap is the way in which Sturgeon has managed to make everyone think that she's done a good job of leading the SNP. So let's look at that.
Nicola Sturgeon inherited a party with a majority in Holyrood, which had been achieved by her predecessor Alex Salmond in 2011 after he successfully ran a minority administration from 2007-2011. Sturgeon lost that majority in 2016 and now presides over another minority government which is not doing nearly as well as the first one. Granted, the number of SNP MPs at Westminster has increased since she took over, however the stunning 2015 result was mainly due to a backlash against the 2014 referendum result and would have happened regardless of who was leader of the party. The SNP lost a lot of MPs in 2017 and has still not got back to the 2015 high water mark in spite of an improved performance in 2019. A similar thing has happened with party membership which increased dramatically in 2014-5 but has recently fallen back again.
Under the leadership of Sturgeon and her husband Peter Murrell the SNP introduced rules banning criticism of the leadership or any party member or policy. This gave them an iron grip on the party which could only last for so long and is now spectacularly breaking down over the issue of transgender rights. Joanna Cherry has publicly criticised Sturgeon's control as being unhealthy for the party while simultaneously asking that the rule banning criticism be used to protect her from the torrent of abuse she has been receiving from party members. Nicola's response to this today has been rather lukewarm. Calton is not surprised - you only get la Sturgeon's support if you agree with her anti-feminist policies.
Finally, on the real acid test of an SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon has failed spectacularly because, although she's been promising another independence referendum since the Brexit vote of 2016, she has failed to deliver one and shows no sign of doing so any time soon, regardless of what (vague) promises she has given this weekend. She is also failing when it comes to governing Scotland well (which Salmond did from 2007-2011) and building support for independence. It's not enough to have a referendum - the SNP members want to win it and that is in no way guaranteed at the moment. The settled 60% in favour of independence which Nicola very sensibly wanted to see before calling indyref2 has never materialised. Support has been 55% at most.
Nicola Sturgeon is very good at presenting herself. She's managed to fool at least some people into thinking that she's handled the Covid crisis well, although the facts say otherwise. However she is not good at managing her party or governing the country or persuading No voters to change to Yes. Self-promotion is all she's good at. Nicola is no Boudicca - but will the rank and file in the SNP realise that before it's too late? Hopefully not.