For five years, in the wake of Brexit and ever starker differences between the politics of England and Scotland, many assumed the latter were moving inevitably towards independence.
They voted strongly for Remain in 2016, for the SNP in multiple elections while even a resurgent Scottish Tory party is resigned to being a permanent minority. In contrast, England voted for Brexit and the Tories completely dominate politics.
SNP and independence have dominated polls
The polls were clear. Last autumn, the New Statesman poll tracker had 'Yes' to independence at an average 54% - almost a complete reversal of the 2014 'No' result. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon enjoyed fine approval ratings and her party were polling 8% higher than at the last Scottish Parliament Election in 2016. Well on course to win the two extra seats required to regain their majority at May's elections, for which they are rated a near-certain 98% to win Most Seats.
Betfair markets still rate them favourite to achieve that. Yes is rated 63% likely at odds of 1.68/13 for Will the SNP Win a Majority of Seats? Market. Those odds have drifted from 1.331/3 though, reflecting a spate of bad news and polling for Sturgeon.
Salmond accusations are the trigger
No doubt, the damage is largely due to the fallout from Alex Salmond's trial for sexual assault. He successfully sued her government over a biased investigative process, paving the way for a complete acquittal. Sturgeon's predecessor and former mentor alleges she misled parliament over when she first learned of the allegations and broke the ministerial code.
From distance, living in a country where breaking the ministerial code is routinely ignored, it all seemed a bit overblown. A procedural row with little material effect. She is very popular. Salmond the reverse. Polling, however, suggests that view from England is wrong.
SNP supporters split over Salmond row
A quite remarkable 61% of Scots think Sturgeon should resign if found to have broken the Ministerial Code. That includes 40% of SNP supporters. Salmond has blown up his old party and perhaps as a consequence, his lifelong ambition of independence.
Regardless of whatever the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harrassment Complaints eventually conclude, the damage may have already been done. Just as a critical election campaign begins, Sturgeon's golden reputation is under a cloud. This controversy, her integrity, will be centre-stage and her opponents are relishing the chance of a pile-on.
Indeed the news cycle is getting worse with two specific stories. The Scotsman today report another looming, perhaps, worse scandal about to hit the Scottish government.
Sarwar challenge could boost Labour
Secondly Labour's new leader Anas Sarwar has confirmed he is to run against Sturgeon in her constituency seat of Glasgow Southside. He lives there. Don't underestimate the significance. This smart move gives him urgently needed publicity and for a party that had long been drifting into irrelevance.
It is very early days for Sarwar but he is articulate and looks a vast improvement on recent Labour leaders in Scotland. Richard Leonard, Johann Lamont, Kezia Dugdale and Iain Gray all failed miserably, and never looked like doing otherwise. The only way is up after seven grim years since the first referendum.
Even a small Labour rise could hurt SNP
The most critical dynamic in Scottish politics is the transfer of Labour/SNP voters. In Westminster, Labour fell from 41 Scottish seats in 2010 to just one in 2015, losing all to the nationalists. A 5% swing between the two is perfectly realistic, would be no great surprise, yet would completely change the dynamics.
In order to strengthen the case for another referendum - to both Westminster and the Scottish electorate - the SNP really need to win a majority in May's elections. They need 65 seats to do so - two higher than 2017.
Given the volatile situation and imminent campaign, that seats projection looks far too close to call. This is a long-term government with a far from perfect record, beset by troubles at the worst moment. Not a time to be backing at odds-on. Labour are still very low in the polls and have potential to grow under a new leader.
I'm laying 1.68/13 about an SNP majority for an opening trade on these various Scottish election markets. What seemed a predictable and dull election suddenly got very interesting.
Bet on Scottish Politics here
Will Nicola Sturgeon be First Minister on 1/1/2022
Year of Next Scottish Referendum
Most Seats at Next Scottish Parliament Elections
Will SNP Win a Majority?
Number of SNP Seats
Over/Under 69.5 SNP Seats
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