YOU’VE got to hand it to the SNP. It defies political gravity. Today, the party is like a unicyclist crossing a chasm between two mountains on a high-wire while juggling with both hands and balancing a beach ball on its nose. It should be plummeting to earth, screaming as it falls, but no, it just keeps going, defying the odds.

The party is riven, splitting into factions. Its track record on key domestic issues like education is woeful, and there’s been such manoeuvring against Nicola Sturgeon that she’s had to confirm she wants to stay on as leader.

Yet a quick glance at election results and opinion polls is a reminder that little has dented the SNP’s political fortunes. The party went up 13 seats at the last general election in December 2019 to 48 MPs on 45% of the vote. Polls show support for independence sitting at 50% in some cases.

So when it comes to a profit and loss sheet, the party looks healthy. Behind the scenes, though, it’s a mess.

How can this be? How can a party be doing so well and so bad at the same time? The answer lies in the fact that hardcore independence supporters will cut the SNP any amount of slack when it comes to scandals and mismanagement because it’s the only vehicle to get them what they want.

That skews democracy, and it hasn't been good for the governance of Scotland.

The SNP has been in power since 2007 – in political terms that’s an aeon. Over that time, the SNP has conformed to all the ills that beset political parties in office for lengthy periods. It’s got sloppy, fractious, and stupid. But unlike other political parties, it’s protected from the consequences by its super-weapon: the get out of jail free card its base of supporters lend it because of independence.

It’s like the Trump Effect. Donald Trump once said: "They say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like incredible.”

We’ve seen with Trump that he can do or say anything and his base doesn’t flinch. The same was true of Boris Johnson and Brexiteers. The same is true of the SNP and its base – because it wears independence like a shield.

The problem is, though, there’s no shield for Scotland or the Scottish people when it comes to bad government by the SNP.

Education is a mess. Teachers are at the end of their tether, and results are atrocious. Pass rates for Higher English last year saw a drop of 5.5% compared to 2018 – that’s 1500 fewer pupils passing. Advanced Higher English pass rates dropped by 8.8%.

The pass rate for Higher History fell from 82.6% to 72.8%. Higher Modern Studies was down by 7.1%. In Maths, the pass rate fell by 2.1%.

To make matters much worse, the Government was accused of trying to sneak these bad figures out by releasing them at night. It looked low and crafty.

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While education soaks up most of the negative headlines, there’s also serious problems with policing and hospitals.

There was a time – maybe five or six years ago, before the world went mad with identity disorder – when nearly all voters judged governments on how effective they were in office. Today, that’s not the case for many voters.

What matters to many is whether a political party reflects their sense of identity. This becomes a force field of protection, a magical cloak of invincibility. As long as a party reaffirms the identity of their base – be that via Brexit or independence – it will avoid the kind of supporter dissatisfaction which would end other governments.

This creates a huge distortion in public debate – the essential cornerstone of democracy.

Yet despite having this super-weapon in its possession, the power of identity as political protection, the SNP is now absurdly starting to juggle with live grenades.

It’s splitting rapidly on the best path towards independence. Some would like to see Sturgeon go. Independence, which until now has conferred protection, is beginning to damage the party from within.

The divisions in the party have crystallised in the Holyrood constituency of Edinburgh Central - Ruth Davidson’s old stomping ground. Two big SNP names are jockeying for a place on the ballot - Joanna Cherry and Angus Robertson.

The pair represent the two sides of the party split. Cherry is on what’s been called the Salmond side, and Robertson is on the Sturgeon wing. In the crudest of terms, it’s the more populist branch versus the social democrat side of the party.

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There’s already mutterings of Cherry replacing Sturgeon as party leader. Of course, this isn’t the only split in the party. The SNP is also tearing itself apart over the increasingly toxic debate about trans rights.

Let’s not forget that the SNP has also just gone through the Derek Mackay scandal, and it’s still got to weather the fall-out from the coming Alex Salmond trial.

So internally, things look pretty awful for the SNP, but in terms of electoral performance and opinion polls the party is laughing … for now.

Moving against Sturgeon would change the game for the party. Sturgeon has centre-ground appeal. Plenty of Unionist and No voters hate her, but to many people, she’s seen as professional, decent, intelligent, and with her heart in the right place.

Her rivals come across as divisive, angry and slippery. The party wouldn’t lose its force field of identity, its shield, if it lost Sturgeon – the base would still be there – but it would damage its centre-ground appeal.

Of course, Sturgeon is to blame for a lot of this herself. She’s teased the base with independence for years in order to keep power. Now her more headstrong and ill-considered colleagues want to get on with it come what may.

A grubby political assassination of Sturgeon would be the beginning of the end for the SNP, and that would inevitably mean the beginning of the end of the campaign for independence. The SNP must step very carefully, unless it wants to succumb to political gravity, dragging the dreams of its voters down with it.

Neil Mackay is Scotland’s Columnist of the Year