With the Scottish parliament elections only eight weeks away, the immediate political cost of the Salmond saga to the party he led for over two decades may be evident soon enough.
There has been much commentary about whether this crisis is cutting through to voters. Nicola Sturgeon enjoys a high approval rating, largely because of her perceived competence in handling coronavirus, and the public are understandably focused on more pressing concerns related to the pandemic. But party insiders accept it is inevitable that these high-profile evidence sessions will have a greater impact on the public consciousness than earlier, more technical, committee sessions.
The SNP hopes to win a majority on 6 May so it can argue it has a clear mandate to pursue a second independence referendum with Westminster. But recent polling shows that – while an SNP victory is still highly likely – there has been a dip in support for the party and for independence.
Last Sunday, a Survation poll for the Sunday Mail recorded a 50-50 split – excluding don’t knows – on independence, the first time in 22 consecutive polls that the yes side has not had a lead.
A week before that, research conducted by Ipsos Mori for STV found the SNP three points down compared with November, but still with 52% are likely to vote for the Nationalists in the constituency vote in May’s election, while 23% indicated they will vote for the Scottish Conservatives and 15% for Scottish Labour. Both Labour and the Tories have gained a single point over the last three months.
Asking about the impact of the Salmond inquiry on voters’ perceptions of the SNP, the Ipsos Mori study found that more than one-third (36%) said the inquiry had made them less favourable towards the party, but most (58%) said the episode had not altered their view.
Some observers suggest it is the advent of the vaccine – which voters may perceive as concrete evidence of the benefits of remaining in the union - that has had more impact on support for independence.
Polling undertaken last month by YouGov of SNP voters found that they strongly take Sturgeon’s side, with 49% believing she has generally been telling the truth, and only 13% believing she has not. These numbers are reversed for Salmond: only 14% think the former first minister has generally told the truth, while 42% disagree.