You could tell it was going to be another bad day at the office for Nicola Sturgeon at First Ministers Questions on Thursday. Whenever she faces tough questioning, her face becomes a mass of ticks and grimaces. She is very thin skinned and takes all attacks on her policies personally. This week her face was contorting in ways few have seen before as she U-turned wildly on one of her pet projects.

This was the issue of gender self-identification with a horrific example of its misuse writ large as a convicted double rapist was sent to a women’s prison resulting in Sturgeon both having to defend and condemn the policy. The rapist is now called Isla Bryson – but was known as Adam Graham at the time of the offences and whose gender change only began after he was charged – had been sent to the women’s prison Cornton Vale following their conviction last Tuesday.

Only the day before, Scottish Justice Secretary Keith Brown had said this was the decision of the Scottish Prison Service (interestingly the court had said Bryson should be sent to men’s prison Barlinnie in Glasgow) and the government would not intervene. How could they intervene when this was precisely the issue which Sturgeon had whipped her MSPs into allowing. Only last month she had insisted that a motion stating that no sex offenders or paedophiles should be allowed to self-ID and her MSPs were whipped to vote the clause down.

Yet 24 hours of terrible headlines and confused messaging later and suddenly Sturgeon said the prison service had decided that “Isla” would be serving their sentence in a male prison and that convicted trans women who posed a danger would not be allowed to be sent to a women’s prison. 

For a leader and a party that never likes to admit it is wrong the last ten days must have been torture. For this is the latest climbdown of major policy stances which have simply been ditched because the political heat had become too much to bear.

The first policy to go was the ending of the rent freeze for the private rented sector. Quietly slipped out just over a week ago by Patrick Harvie – the catchily titled Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants Rights – the much-vaunted policy to help tenants with the cost-of-living crisis was simply abandoned. Private landlords could now increase rents by between 3 and 6 per cent from 1 April.

Inexplicably, for a government that sells itself on being progressive, the poorest tenants who live in social housing could now face an 11 per cent increase in their rents from the spring. This was a policy brought in on a whim delivered with ridiculous rhetoric about a “humanitarian emergency” for household budgets and carried through without debate or consultation. 

The resulting drop in property investment (£3.4bn in build-to-rent put on hold immediately after the announcement was made), an increased shortage of properties resulting in soaring rents coupled with a sustained campaign from universities, councils, housing associations, landlords, and property investors led to the climbdown. However, it has not stopped legal action against the Government by a range of bodies involved in the private rented sector which continues to be pursued.

Just two days ago, the National Care service, which has long been regarded as Sturgeon’s legacy policy is now rumoured to be delayed or even shelved. The £1.3bn policy which has been criticised by everyone closely involved in the sector as unwieldy and unaffordable was, until this week, being pushed through and presented as the answer to all major issues facing the care sector.

Now Social Care Minister, Kevin Stewart, has indicated that the policy is being re-examined and more time may be needed before proceeding. Three U-turns in ten days for a government that can never accept that it is wrong about anything is a sign that things are continuing to go from bad to worse.

The lack of judgement, the careless phrasing, the angry looks when she is questioned show a First Minister under enormous pressure and failing to cope with the insurmountable issues now building in Scotland. This is a First Minister whose political understanding has left her. 

She is more hectoring, less interested in even attempting to argue her points and preferring to beat down her opponents with aggression. The discontent within the ranks is growing both in the parliaments and among the wider party.

The Gender Recognition Reform Bill may well be the legislation that finally scuppers Sturgeon. For this virtue signalling policy is one which few in her party and fewer among the electorate of Scotland understand or want. She barks that it is the UK government’s challenge to this legislation which is undemocratic yet any minister in her party who opposes SNP policy is sacked from their job as Ash Regan and Joanna Cherry found out.

She believes that this policy aims to help the most vulnerable in society, yet few would disagree that the most vulnerable are surely women who have been raped and children who have been abused but are not given a second thought in Sturgeon’s Scotland.

This is not politics, this is madness. But who in her party will challenge Sturgeon as she runs head long into a brick wall? Nobody. Because all that matters is independence. The cause may be independence yet independent thought in the Scottish government is banished.

At a time when few in Scotland believe independence is an important issue, we have a party that can see no other matter. Not for Sturgeon and her chums the cost-of-living crisis, the meltdown in the NHS resulting in increased excess deaths, the daily strikes in Scottish schools, the highest drugs deaths in Europe, or the sluggish performance of the economy. No, what we want is freedom. Not now of course but at some time in the future when Nicola decides the time is right.

We are surely through the looking glass living in a nether world where anything Nicola says goes, despite it not making sense, where people’s lives are disregarded unless it is about independence, and where mistakes are always the fault of others and never the fault of a Scottish government which, after all, has complete control over all aspects of the lives of Scots other than defence and some elements of the benefits system.

Yet it will all be OK once Nicola gets independence. Only then will Scotland start to have better services, better government, and better lives. I think people will believe that when they see it but until then all Scots can look forward to is a leader and government in perpetual chaos, decline, and daily misjudgements. The clock is surely ticking for Sturgeon.

Colin Wright is an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist. His writing has appeared in The Scotsman, the Herald, the Times, the Telegraph, the BBC, the New Statesman.

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