If the acclamation that greeted Nicola Sturgeon at the Scottish National Party (SNP) conference in Glasgow this week is any guide, her position as leader is unassailable. But there is no masking the fact that her party is in a more difficult situation than at any point since she succeeded Alex Salmond in 2014. After an astonishing result in the 2015 British general election, in which the Scottish nationalists came within three seats of a clean sweep, the party was brought back to earth in the snap election last June, when it lost 21 of the 56 seats it won in 2015 – including those of Salmond and deputy leader Angus Robertson. The reversal was widely blamed on Sturgeon's demand for a second referendum on Scottish independence. A majority of Scottish voters opposed Brexit in last year's referendum, but initial SNP hopes that the UK's impending departure from the European Union would give new impetus to the separatist cause have dimmed with the passing months.
In any political party, success conceals internal divisions while setbacks magnify them. So it is with the SNP, where voices are now being raised – in particular among those who represent the one-third of SNP voters who opted for Leave in the Brexit referendum – about the party’s enthusiasm for the EU. Another point of disagreement is the timing of the next independence referendum. In her conference address, Sturgeon focused on domestic issues and played down the prospect of a new plebiscite. That reflects one of her chief difficulties. Having initially indicated that the Brexit referendum would bring a vote on Scottish statehood closer, Sturgeon has recently avoided committing to a date, saying a decision will not be made until the shape of the Brexit deal is clear. It’s a position that sounds far too vague to the more impatient party members.
In the background, meanwhile, are persistent policy headaches facing the SNP-led coalition that Sturgeon presides over as first minister. Pressure on the public finances makes it a challenge for the Scottish government to fulfil SNP election promises, which include the lifting of a public sector pay cap. Aware that its electoral fortunes hinge on its performance in government, the SNP must tack left so as to confront a resurgent Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn but must also ensure it can put up a fight to regain former strongholds in the north-east that fell to the Scottish Conservatives in June. A YouGov poll last weekend showed just four out of 10 Scots approve of Sturgeon's record.
The SNP nonetheless has plenty going for it. It remains the dominant party in Scotland, and unless there is an early UK election it has several years to rebuild and re-energise its base before having to face the voters again. But Brexit remains the wild card that could change everything.