Labour hopes resignation of first minister will fuel election victory.
Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation represents a “generational setback” for Scottish independence, ministers believe, while senior Labour figures say it will help Sir Keir Starmer to secure victory at the next election.
The first minister announced on Wednesday that she would stand down, admitting she had become a polarising figure and no longer had the energy to lead the campaign for independence.
In a press conference at Bute House in Edinburgh, where she appeared close to tears, she said that while she believed the majority of Scotland backed independence this support “needs to be solidified”.
She added: “To achieve that we must reach across the divide in Scottish politics. And my judgment now is that a new leader will be better able to do this. Someone about whom the mind of almost everyone in the country is not already made up, for better or worse. Someone who is not subject to quite the same polarised opinions, fair or unfair, as I now am.”
Senior Tories and figures in the Labour Party reacted with jubilation. “The case for independence is massively weaker,” a senior government source said. “It’s the best day since we won the referendum. It’s a generational setback for independence and a generational boost for unionism.
“Sturgeon is an incredible communicator — time and again she was able to deflect issues over the state of public services in Scotland. There was a cult of personality around her. If you look at the runners and riders, public recognition is very low. The SNP no longer have a public figure. It’s going to be a long road back for them.”
Labour, which has a single MP in Scotland, believes it can capitalise on Sturgeon’s resignation and reverse its near decade-long decline north of the border. Starmer, who will attend Scottish Labour’s annual conference this weekend, said his party “stands ready to be the change that Scotland needs”.
A senior Labour source said: “It’s great for us. The SNP is about to start a rats-fighting-in-a-sack race . . . when people want the country to function, their schools and hospitals to function, while we are heading into a conference to set out our vision. For a while it has been her keeping support for the SNP inflated. Now she’s gone, that throws everything up in the air and makes us more competitive in a lot of seats.”
Kate Forbes, the SNP finance secretary, who is on maternity leave, is seen as an early frontrunner to replace Sturgeon. Other contenders include Angus Robertson, the party’s former Westminster leader; John Swinney, the deputy first minister; and Keith Brown, the SNP deputy leader. A successor will be announced in six to eight weeks.
Sturgeon denied her decision was in response to “short-term pressures” after the controversy over plans to make it easier to change gender and a police inquiry into the finances of her party. Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive, said he would stay in post amid scrutiny over a £107,000 loan he made to the party.
The Times has been told of significant internal tensions over Sturgeon’s plans to use the next general election as a de facto ballot on Scottish independence. MPs and MSPs have criticised the tactic with Stewart McDonald, the former defence spokesman and a Sturgeon loyalist, warning the move would damage the independence movement’s international credibility. One source said that even more senior figures in the party had been questioning the logic of the policy in recent weeks.
Sturgeon intends to stay on as an MSP until the next Holyrood elections in 2026. She said: “Since the very first moment in the job, I have believed that part of serving well would be to know, almost instinctively, when the time is right to make way for someone else — and when that time came, to have the courage to do so, even if many across the country, and in my party, might feel it too soon. In my head and in my heart I know that time is now.”
She also spoke about the personal toll of being first minister. “Now, to be clear, I’m not expecting violins here,” she said. “But I am a human being as well as a politician. My point is this: giving absolutely everything of yourself to this job is the only way to do it. The country deserves nothing less. But in truth that can only be done by anyone for so long. For me, it is now in danger of becoming too long.”
A source close to Sturgeon said that people would not change their minds on the constitutional question because she had quit, and that the SNP’s opponents would be making a mistake to bank on gains after she left office. “They are utterly deluded and living in a fool’s paradise if they believe independence is going away just because Nicola Sturgeon is not first minister,” the source said. “Because it isn’t.”