How do you keep a party fresh and maintain political momentum after 15 years in power when public services are struggling and your core aim looks very difficult to achieve?
That was Nicola Sturgeon‘s central challenge going into today’s speech, and she responded with attacks on both the Tories and Labour, by announcing new support for low income families, and with a rallying call to “finish the job” on independence.
“We are the independence generation,” she told party members in Aberdeen. “I will never ever give up on Scottish democracy.”
Ms Sturgeon became Scotland’s deputy first minister in 2007, when Tony Blair lived at Number 10 and George W Bush in the White House.
She took over the top job in 2014 and her sharp political antennae, along with smooth media performances, are the reason the SNP remains the dominant political force in Scotland, and her leadership position secure.
Privately, however, there are grumbles within the SNP about the mismanagement of health and education, and her failure to secure another vote on leaving the UK.
“You hear the sentiment we’ve been in too long,” said one veteran nationalist. “There are policy failures almost on a daily basis. We look tired, we look stale, there are no new ideas.”
“A lot of people are becoming concerned about where we are,” another senior figure told me. “Conference is downbeat. The train strikes mean this is not nearly as well attended. Some are disaffected.”
Fresh policy pledges
To prove the naysayers wrong, Ms Sturgeon today made several new policy pledges, including the doubling of a £130 payment for 145,000 children and young people in receipt of free school meals.
The first minister acknowledged this “wouldn’t make all of their worries go away – no government with our limited powers can ever do that”, but that she hoped it’d bring “a bit of Christmas cheer to those who need it most”.
Her unspoken message was, we take better care of you north of the border than they do in the south.
The battle for Indyref2
Nicola Sturgeon’s core aim, however, is securing another vote on Scottish independence. That looks tricky in the short term.
The UK government is blocking another vote and tomorrow the legal battle will reach the Supreme Court.
The Scottish Government will argue that the Scottish Parliament has the power to call another vote.
Senior figures in the party privately concede there is little chance of Ms Sturgeon’s government winning.
“Sadly I think the weight of legal opinion is against us,” said one ally of the first minister.
“It’s a foregone conclusion the Supreme Court will say we don’t have the power,” said a second insider.
“On the balance of probabilities, we may lose,” said another. “But win or lose could be a win for us, because we hope the justices recognise that this is a political impasse which needs to somehow be resolved.”
Alex Salmond, Sturgeon’s political mentor-turned-enemy, argues there is a “vacuum of strategic thinking” in the SNP which “does not augur well for the prospects of better planning in the aftermath” of the Supreme Court judgment.
“We have moved from an electorate not quite ready for independence but with a clear strategy to achieve it, to a people ready for independence but with no convincing strategy,” he wrote on Twitter.
To help calm wider tensions in her party, today Ms Sturgeon announced that a paper on her party’s economic policy post-independence will be published next week.
Growing SNP concern at Labour resurgence
The slow Labour resurgence, after almost being wiped out at the 2015 and 2019 Westminster elections, is of growing concern at SNP HQ.
With Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer now looking possible, Ms Sturgeon’s colleagues worry their voters may temporarily back his party at a general election to get rid of the Conservatives.
Once an irrelevance not even worth mentioning at conference, Labour is now more frequently attacked in nationalist speeches, in particular their new policy to “make Brexit work”.
“Labour is now just as committed to Brexit – a hard Brexit – as the Tories,” Ms Sturgeon told the SNP conference. “At least the Tories believe in it. Labour doesn’t.
“They abandon all principle for fear of upsetting the apple cart. Bluntly – they are willing to chuck Scotland under Boris Johnson’s Brexit bus to get the keys to Downing Street. Letting down Scotland. Same old Labour.”
Ms Sturgeon may be the most experienced top-level politician in the UK, but even she admits she can’t “go on and on”, as Margaret Thatcher once pledged.
“Her popularity is on the wane,” said one experienced SNP figure. “It’s not in the stratosphere like during the COVID crisis.”
Yet the first minister’s pre-eminence in her party means she, and she alone, will decide on the timetable for standing down.
Despite her pledge today that she will be first minister for “quite some time”, many believe behind the scenes Ms Sturgeon is actively working out an exit strategy, with some claiming a departure post-general election is most likely.