“PRIVATELY my main worry is that it becomes so exhausting for her that she just throws in the towel.”

That’s one of Nicola Sturgeon’s oldest friends and a member of the SNP hierarchy talking about the toll of the ongoing Alex Salmond saga on the First Minister.

They’re not the only confidante or party insider troubled about what the Salmond inquiry is doing to Sturgeon personally.

Her friends are worried about her – and about what the mounting pressure on her means for the SNP, the future of independence, and the governance of Scotland. The Salmond inquiry is toxic. It’s not just politically damaging – it’s dripping poison all over Sturgeon, and everyone associated with it, including Salmond himself, in a way that’s deeply and very personally destructive.

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These worries over the future of Sturgeon are proof of just how Alice-In-Wonderland Scottish politics can be. Up can be down, and black white. The spirit of the times is with Sturgeon – she’s won incredible levels of trust from the Scottish public during pandemic, her party looks set for a majority at Holyrood next year, and support for independence stands at 58 per cent in the polls.

Yet the Salmond inquiry is exposing her to greater reputational attack than she’s ever experienced in her political life.

It’s astonishing just how many faceless independence activists don’t like her, even though she’s pulled off such an incredible series of political successes – for which, you’d imagine, they’d be grateful. But they’re not – which reflects the brittle nature of the SNP and the Yes movement. Both are riven by a multiplicity of factional splits z– left-right, Salmond-Sturgeon, progressive-traditional, gradualist-fundamentalist. The list is long, arcane and designed to weary voters seeking good governance and a sensible vision of the future.

The SNP and Yes movement are fractious camps, and with Sturgeon intellectually and politically the centre of gravity for both, she can be, self-evidently, a heroine to one faction and a villain to the other simultaneously.

From a non-partisan perspective, it’s looks like abject, blinkered folly. Why hand opposition parties and No campaigners the whip?

To the average punter, Sturgeon seems a pretty decent woman with her heart in the right place; a left-leaning centrist trying to pull a disparate movement and political party together; and a savvy political operator with an eye always on the main chance.

There’s no greater proof of Sturgeon’s political prowess than the way she’s managed to parlay an approach to Covid, which is basically much the same as Westminster’s, into a success story, while Boris Johnson is seen as an incompetent fool endangering the country.

Sturgeon’s internal enemies are politically naive in the extreme. To many voters, whether or not they support independence or another referendum, she’s a Goldilocks politician – not too this, not too that, but just about right. That’s her recipe for success. Those against her in the party and Yes movement seem to be ploughing their own ambitious furrow – with little sense of public mood.

It should be made clear that any concern over Sturgeon’s future – this idea that she might just “throw in the towel” if the Salmond inquiry becomes too brutal or exhausting – isn’t a reflection of the First Minister’s view at the moment. These concerns are being expressed by close friends, and colleagues in the SNP hierarchy. 

It’s a racing cert that Sturgeon if asked about her future, would say she’s here to stay until Scotland says otherwise. She’s also a strong woman, a fighter, so it’s unlikely someone of her mettle would cave in under even extreme pressure.

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READ MORE: Salmond saga drains trust in Sturgeon just as she needs it most

However, such concerns over her future are proof of the damage the Salmond inquiry is doing. Sturgeon rarely appears rattled, but questions over Salmond have rattled her. Nobody is made of titanium, and the inquiry could lead anywhere. It would be mistaken to suggest the worst is over, and even more naive to think that there will be no consequences, personally or politically, for the main players.

Of course, there would be an almost Shakespearean sense of tragedy for Sturgeon personally if she should exit the political stage – for whatever reason –ahead of a second referendum. The idea of her quitting or being forced from office, while independence seems so close, would go down in the history books as a story of political fate at its cruelest.

Who would replace Sturgeon? There’s nobody to fill her shoes. She stands head and shoulders above all other contenders in both the SNP and the Yes movement. Without her, would the SNP win a 2021 Holyrood majority? Would independence support fall?

The anti-Sturgeon camp needs to be careful what it wishes for. Perhaps this all illuminates the fact that Sturgeon needs a better team around her. She can’t remain the only star. We don’t live in a presidential system. The new crop of SNP Holyrood candidates mostly don’t inspire great faith.

One close friend of Sturgeon said that the idea of a woman falling on her sword as the final act of the Salmond saga would be intolerable.

There’s an international dimension to all this as well. Sturgeon may be the more seasoned politician, but Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand is clearly one of her role models. The similarities between the two are plain to see. Ardern’s landslide victory over the weekend has been taken as a sign of the times.

Along with the decline in polls for Trump, Ardern’s win is seen as proof that the rise of the neo-right – of which Brexit was our homegrown expression – is ending. Sturgeon sits on that spectrum of politicians offering opposition to the new right-wing ideology.

If Sturgeon goes – for whatever reason – then Scotland, which has traditionally seen itself firmly in the vanguard of the progressive movement globally, may appear rapidly out of step with the direction of travel in the political realm in the western world.

Who would fill the multiple vacuums she’d leave behind? Even in terms of rival parties, Labour and the Tories are just playing at opposition in Scotland. 

Sturgeon’s great asset is that there’s nobody of her talent on the Scottish political stage.
If – or rather when - she does eventually go that will be a problem for the governance of Scotland, unless the First Minister starts to groom an adequate successor pretty quickly.