Nicola Sturgeon has accused Liz Truss of doing “real and lasting damage to the fabric of British society” after crashing the UK economy, sinking the pound and threatening the poorest with further austerity.
The prime minister’s brief tenure had been “utterly catastrophic”, Sturgeon told Good Morning Britain on Friday before the Scottish National party’s annual conference in Aberdeen this weekend.
Yet the first minister faces political challenges of her own. The mood in Scotland has shifted – voters are critical of her government’s performance on all key policy areas, and perhaps more surprisingly, the SNP have yet to benefit politically from Truss’s disastrous start.
As Sturgeon prepares for her party’s first in-person conference since 2019, four opinion polls published in the last 72 hours offer some sobering findings for the SNP in what may be a crucial week for Scottish nationalism.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the UK supreme court will hear Scotland’s lord advocate, Dorothy Bain KC, argue Holyrood has the right to stage an independence referendum next October without Westminster approval – a position few legal experts support. And later next week, Sturgeon will publish the economic prospectus for independence, set against the worst cost of living crisis in decades.
A poll from Ipsos Mori on Friday found voters are unhappy with the Scottish government’s handling of taxation, the economy, crime, living standards, inequalities, education, social divisions and reducing poverty. Only 21% to 29% felt the SNP is doing well; on living standards, the economy and education, as many as 46% felt it is doing badly. The remainder were unsure or ambivalent.
On the NHS, voters gave their harshest verdict. According to Ipsos Mori, 51% believed Sturgeon’s government is doing a bad job on the health service, with waiting list times and A&E delays at record levels. Only 22% were happy, the remainder undecided.
Challenged on Radio 4’s Today programme about the case of a 73-year-old woman with a broken hip who took a taxi to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary after an ambulance failed to arrive, the first minister admitted A&E performance was “not good enough”. She insisted extra spending and new strategies would arrest that decline but in a further interview, with BBC Breakfast, acknowledged this winter was “likely to be extremely difficult” for hospitals.
While the SNP remains the dominant party, polls from YouGov, Survation and Comres showed its support has barely shifted, ranging from 44% to 46%. Labour has been the beneficiary: its support jumped to 31% – its best figures since before the 2015 general election. The Tories tanked, falling to as low as 12%.
And crucially, none of those polls put support for independence ahead – despite the Westminster-engineered economic crisis.
While YouGov found yes support had grown five points to 43%, no was just in the lead at 45%; ComRes had them effectively tied at 46% no and 45% yes. To add to the challenge, Survation found only 35% of voters wanted a referendum next year, with 53% opposed.
That increases the pressure on Sturgeon ahead of her conference speech on Monday; she has to seize that opportunity to project her agenda, and profit politically from the Tories’ crisis.
Sturgeon also told the BBC on Friday that she was yet to speak to Truss, other than “an exchange or two” at the Queen’s funeral.
She added: “I don’t know whether that is arrogance, lack of respect or insecurity or whatever it is. It’s not the right way to do government in a grown up way.
“So I hope we will see a change. I’ll do my best to work with Liz Truss as constructively as possible, or whoever comes after, because we can’t take anything for granted in UK politics these days.”
She will also need to reach activists frustrated that, despite naming a referendum date of 19 October next year – there’s still no strategy for a new campaign. Meanwhile, a maturing cohort of younger members who are just as concerned about black, Asian and minority ethnic candidate selection, transphobia and the party’s poor handling of sexual harassment and other complaints.
Although reform of the gender recognition laws was in the SNP’s last manifesto, a minority of members have serious concerns about the impact on women’s rights, but with no obvious space either in the conference hall or on the fringe to discuss that.
Sturgeon is now fighting on two fronts: to shore up ebbing confidence in her domestic policies, and convert anger with the Tories into support for independence. They are interrelated, which is why this week’s polls matter for another reason.
Sturgeon has said that if, as expected, the supreme court rules Holyrood cannot stage an independence vote without Westminster approval next October, she will use the next general election as a “de facto” referendum on independence. If the SNP wins more than 50% of the votes, she asserts, that proves she has a mandate to negotiate independence. These polls suggest the SNP is a distance short of that majority.