SNP is ‘played out’ in Scotland, says minister as he eyes ‘opportunity’ for Conservatives

Health minister Neil O’Brien has claimed that the SNP is “played out” in Scotland, adding that he viewed the departure of Nicola Sturgeon is an “opportunity” for the Scottish Conservatives.

Nicola Sturgeon called a surprise press conference yesterday and announced that she was resigning as Scotland’s first minister after eight years in the job.

She said modern politics “takes its toll” on politicians and those around them and that she knew “in my head and in my heart” that it was the right time to stand down. 

Speaking at Bute House in Edinburgh, Ms Sturgeon said: “In my head and in my heart I know that time is now, that it is right for me, for my party and for the country. And so today I am announcing my intention to step down as First Minister and leader of my party”.

She said she could not “pin point” the exact moment she decided to quit but said it had “started to crystalise” a couple of weeks ago.

“I have been thinking about it, I used the term in my remarks ‘with oscillating intensity’, and that is true. There are some days I haven’t thought about it at all because there is too much else and then other times it has weighed more heavily”, the first minister added.

The move comes following a recent debate over the incarceration of trans prisoners, and broader disagreements about the Scottish government’s policy of gender self-identification.

Ms Sturgeon has also been buffeted by broader issues, such as the UK Supreme Court’s rejection of an SNP bid to hold a new independence referendum. In the aftermath, the first minister said the party would fight the next general election as a de facto referendum, a tactic which has proved controversial among some in her party. 

Reacting to Ms Sturgeon’s departure, Mr O’Brien told Sky News: “It is an opportunity for us to do better in Scotland because I think it is apparent to people in Scotland now that the SNP are a bit played out.

“In public services things are not working. If you look at things like the ferries’ contract, it is a disaster. Many of the other things that they are doing are going wrong.

“There is a reason why Nicola has gone now. On the one hand we have always worked respectfully with her even though we disagree with her. On the other hand the railroading through of gender self-ID has been divisive not just in Scottish politics generally but within her own party. There have been divisions over this”.

Reacting to Ms Sturgeon’s decision to step down yesterday, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives Douglas Ross said “Whatever our differences, it is right we recognise that political leadership is always demanding and takes its toll on a person and their family.

In a statement, Mr Ross said: “I am glad Nicola Sturgeon has recognised this is the right time to go”, adding: “However, at this time, we cannot ignore that she has presided over a decade of division and decay in Scotland.”

Ross said that instead of “trying to unite the country” after the 2014 independence referendum, Sturgeon “refused to accept the result”.

“Her entire tenure as First Minister has been characterised by relentless agitating for another vote on separation – governing in her party’s interests, rather than Scotland’s”, he said.

A recent Survation poll found that the Scottish Conservatives were on 18 per cent in the regional Holyrood vote and 17 per cent in the constituency vote. This placed them in third behind Scottish Labour and the SNP.

It comes as the race slowly gets underway to replace Ms Strugeon, with SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn the first to rule himself out of the contest.

Declining to say who he is likely to back in the contest, Mr Flynn told Sky News: “Indeed, I’ll not be standing. Of course the next leader of the Scottish National Party needs to have the ability to be first minister. No MP has the ability to be first minister for obvious reasons that we are located in London and not Edinburgh”.

“In terms of who I am backing I have not seen anyone throw their name into the ring yet. Once names start going into that ring I’ll have conversations with my colleagues, see what their policy priorities are in terms of immediate challenges that we face, how they intend to overcome some of the issues in relation to the economy , in relation to the health service, in relation to the cost of living crisis and indeed our energy future and of course how they set out their pathway to that independent future”.

He also said that the party’s special conference on Scottish independence should be “paused” while a replacement for Ms Sturgeon is found. 

The SNP had planned to hold a crunch summit on how to secure Scottish independence on March 19. Mr Flynn added: “So we need to chart that next course. How do we get to that independent future. The de facto referendum was obviously put forward by the first minister and we were going to be discussing and debating the merits of that at that party conference”.

“I think the new leader should have the opportunity and indeed the space to set out their position, their values and their intentions going forward”.