NICOLA Sturgeon is so “knackered” and beset by infighting that she will quit before the next Holyrood election, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats has suggested.

Alex Cole-Hamilton said the “exhausted” First Minister would probably prefer to put the SNP’s feuding behind her and take up an academic post in America.

Predicting the SNP and Yes movement’s fortunes would slump when she left, he said: “I think that edifice of power and support will crumble when she goes.”

Mr Cole-Hamilton was speaking on the eve of his first conference as Scottish LibDem leader.

He replaced Willie Rennie, who quit after the party fell from five MSPs to four in the Holyrood election, two months ago.

Mr Cole-Hamilton said he wanted to be a credible party of government again and hinted at a potential alliance with Scottish Labour. 

Calling Labour leader Anas Sarwar his “friend”, he said there was “enough common ground to build something there which could be quite formidable”.

Speaking to the media this morning, he said problems were stacking up for the SNP Government, including in health and education, and a voter backlash was coming. 

“If Nicola Sturgeon herself goes I think the game changes entirely,” he said. 

“So… I think my party needs to be ready for success.

“We’re finding on the doorstep a warmth and a readiness of people to believe in us again, to look to us again, and I’m ready to capitalise on that.”

If she remained in office, Ms Sturgeon would have been First Minister almost as long as Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister by the 2026 Holyrood election.

Asked if he thought Ms Sturgeon would lead the SNP into 2026, Mr Cole-Hamilton said: “I think it’s hard to see how she leads the SNP into the next election. 

“I say that because she has an internecine civil war within her own party, which might be dormant just now but I think is about to flare up again on a range of issues.

“She has a fundamentalist and a gradualist wing of her party that will come to blows when they realise there sin’t going to be an independence referendum in 2023.

“I think even the most ardent SNP supporters realise that’s coming over the horizon.

“There will be this pressure for her to go for a wildcat referendum and all of these things.

“She’s looked knackered for a long time, she’s looked exhausted. I can understand that.

“She’s put in a lot of hours work in terms of the pandemic. I wouldn’t take that away from her. You’ve got to think there’s part of her would much rather have a nice sort of academic job in America than lead that vipers’ nest of a party that she does.”

READ MORE: Alex Cole-Hamilton: 'Sturgeon sacrificed children’s rights for grievance with UK'

Asked if Ms Sturgeon quitting before 2026 would bring an opportunity for his party, the Edinburgh Western MSP said: “I think it really does. 

One of the mistakes that Nicola Sturgeon has made is that she has never relinquished any sort of control to people beneath her. Everything has been done by her. I understand that she is quite a controlling figure.

“She struggles to delegate some of this stuff. I think on the big ticket stuff that she has all of the reins of the party. That means there is no heir apparent.

“There’s been lots of polling that says a lot of the support for the SNP and for the independence movement itself is based on an appreciation of Nicola Sturgeon and a belief that she’ll have a plan.

“She’s got this solemn managerialism about her which I think that people quite like.

It’s certainly changed a lot of people to her side who wouldn’t have voted SNP before because they’ve been watching her in prime time every lunchtime for the Covid news.

“But there’s nobody else like that in her party, and I think that edifice of power and support will crumble when she goes.”

It emerged this week that Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross and Ms Sturgeon had agreed a £50 bet on whether she would still be leader by 2026.

An SNP spokesperson said: "It’s Mr Cole-Hamilton’s party which is knackered after their toxic coalition with the Tories.

“Their vote has plunged ever since and he now has the ignominy of leading a group which, with just four MSPs, doesn’t even have recognised party status at Holyrood

“He is just the latest party leader to admit they can’t compete with Nicola Sturgeon – long may it continue.”