February 6, 2023 - 7:00am

Ever since Alex Salmond won his historic (and supposedly impossible) overall majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011, the Scottish National Party has appeared a near-unstoppable political juggernaut. 

Yet in the midst of the continuing fallout from Nicola Sturgeon’s attempt to pass her controversial Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill, it looks as if the magic might finally have run out.

When Alister Jack exercised never-before-used powers to veto the Bill, it was supposed to trigger exactly the sort of constitutional showdown with the London Tories the SNP live for.

But there was no popular backlash. Instead, the First Minister was plunged into a row about the placement of male-bodied trans prisoners in female prisons. The tension with her policy on self-ID is obvious; the interviews where she tries to evade it are excruciating.

Moreover, while the SNP has ridden out many scandals over the past few years — school standards, NHS outcomes, drugs deaths, missing ferries, and more — this one seems to be sticking. The latest polling shows support for the Nationalists down in both Westminster and Holyrood voting intentions.

Sturgeon’s personal ratings are also now in negative territory — a far cry from the days when Holyrood magazine depicted her as an angel above the headline ‘Can she do no wrong?’

The Scottish Government ought to have been able to see this coming. Polling from December and January found that even when Scots were broadly supportive of the direction of its gender policy, there was deep disquiet about particular aspects, especially lowering the age of transition to 16.

Of course, that’s easy to say in retrospect. But other people did: Downing Street signed off on Jack’s veto in part because it apparently had polling which suggested the move would be well-received in Scotland. A finely-tuned political antenna based in Scotland should have picked that up.

But when you’ve been in power so long, and shrugged off so much, you lose touch. After almost a decade in office, belief in one’s own invincibility is a dangerous temptation; the desire to secure a landmark legacy another — especially in a party as ruthlessly centralised as the SNP. 

When times are good, phalanx-like discipline is a great strength. But when they’re not, the inflexibility turns into a handicap.

Gender has been one of the fault lines along which Nationalist discipline has been fracturing for some time. But the First Minister has shown little tolerance of dissent. Prominent Nationalists who might have warned the First Minister about the political impact of the GRR Bill, such as Joanna Cherry, have been ruthlessly excluded by the party hierarchy.

It’s too early to say if this will be Sturgeon’s poll tax moment. Even now, she polls much better than any of her Holyrood rivals.

But the parallels with Margaret Thatcher’s final years are clear. And the recent collapse in the Conservatives’ polling, after Brexit held them north of 40% throughout the chaos of 2016 to 2019, shows that constitutional politics won’t let any party defy political gravity forever.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.