Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation as Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish National party on Wednesday after a backlash over her strategy for securing independence and controversy over proposed gender laws.
A thorn in the side of UK prime ministers for almost a decade, Sturgeon led the pro-independence SNP to repeated electoral success even as opponents highlighted her Scottish governments’ failures to improve education and the NHS.
Sturgeon, head of the SNP since 2014, told a press conference that the intensity demanded by the “best job in the world” could only be maintained for so long.
“There is a much greater intensity, dare I say brutality, to life as a politician than in years gone by . . . It takes its toll on you and on those around you,” she said.
She declined to name a preferred successor. Analysts have identified Kate Forbes, the Scottish finance secretary who is on parental leave, as a potential replacement, while bookmakers made Angus Robertson, constitution secretary, the early favourite.
Other possible successors include John Swinney, deputy first minister, Humza Yousaf, health secretary, Keith Brown, justice secretary, and Stephen Flynn, the SNP leader at Westminster.
Sturgeon, 52, took over from Alex Salmond as first minister and SNP leader after the Scottish government that he led failed to win a referendum on independence in 2014.
She insisted her decision to step down was “not a reaction to short-term pressures”, although it comes ahead of an SNP debate on her preferred strategy to use the next UK general election as a “de facto” referendum on independence.
She took this stance after the UK government repeatedly refused to authorise another independence referendum.
But some SNP MPs feared that turning the election into a single-issue vote would hurt the party at the ballot box and their opposition has weakened her authority.
“Sturgeon was clearly no longer in control of the party’s strategy,” said Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde university.
If her departure further exposes SNP divisions, Labour may benefit in its push for a UK-wide majority at the next general election.
Some SNP insiders have also accused Sturgeon of failing to make a strong and sustained case for independence, amid opinion polls suggesting Scots are evenly divided over whether their country should leave the UK.
Scots in 2014 voted to remain part of the UK by 55 per cent to 45 per cent. Backing for independence briefly surged at the height of the Covid-19 crisis, when she was perceived to be performing better than the London government and then prime minister Boris Johnson.
Sturgeon also saw her hitherto strong grip on the SNP loosened by her stance on transgender rights.
Her government’s legislation to reduce to 16 the age at which people can obtain a gender recognition certificate was opposed by some SNP members of the parliament in Edinburgh and hurt her popularity among voters. It was later blocked by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
While Sturgeon’s opinion poll approval ratings have declined in recent months, she still enjoys much higher support than all her major rivals and the SNP has hefty leads over both Labour and the Conservatives.
Sturgeon said she planned to stay in office until the SNP chooses a successor and would remain a member of the Scottish parliament until an election due in 2026.
Her predecessor Salmond, who formed the breakaway Alba party after falling out with Sturgeon, said she left office with “no clear strategy for independence”.
Towards the end of her press conference, Sturgeon declined to answer when asked if she expected to be interviewed by police as part of an investigation of a loan made to the SNP by her husband, Peter Murrell, who is the party’s chief executive.