Three weeks ago, Nicola Sturgeon could not have been clearer about her plans for the immediate future.
Appearing on the BBC’s ‘Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg’, she talked about the shock decision by Jacinda Ardern — another hugely successful female leader — to resign as the prime minister of New Zealand.
Sturgeon said: “If I ever reach the point which she has clearly reached, where I just think overall I can’t give the job everything it deserves, then I hope I have the same courage she has had in saying ‘OK, this is the point to go’.
“But just for the avoidance of all doubt, I don’t feel anywhere near that right now, nowhere near.”
However, many observers believe that Sturgeon is now in the final chapter of her time as Scotland’s first minister, a job she has held since 2014.
She finds herself beset by challenges on all sides, most notably on the issue of transgender rights.
Her government’s attempts to make it easier for people to legally change gender have been blocked by Westminster, but what started out as a constitutional battle has quickly morphed into a leadership crisis.
Internal dissent, almost unheard of in the SNP, has broken out over Sturgeon’s handling of the affair, while voters are also beginning to make clear their dissatisfaction.
A YouGov poll last weekend showed Sturgeon’s approval ratings are now in negative territory, while support for the SNP and even independence itself appears to be on the slide.
Sturgeon’s approach to removing Scotland from the UK — the SNP’s entire raison d’etre — is also coming under fire from within her own ranks.
After the Court of Session ruled last November that the Scottish government could not arrange its own independence vote, Sturgeon announced that the next general election would instead become a “de facto” referendum.
A majority of votes for pro-independence parties would be enough to begin negotiations with Westminster on ending the 300-year-old union, she said.
The move caused another SNP split — the party’s MPs were particularly aggrieved — and the issue will now be settled at a “Special Democracy Conference” in March.
At a time when ordinary voters are still struggling with the impact of the cost of living crisis, Sturgeon and her party’s focus on the constitution seems oddly out of step with public opinion.
‘She’s been in power too long’
Unsurprisingly, Sturgeon’s political opponents — after more than a decade of virtually unbroken SNP success — are enjoying her discomfort.
“The clapping seals on the SNP benches are suddenly getting it in the neck from voters and they don’t like it,” one Labour source told HuffPost UK.
“The public have given them the benefit of the doubt for too long, but she’s now given them permission to take a closer look at her record and they can see it’s pretty shit.
“She’s been in power for too long and people are understandably pissed off.”
‘Don’t write her off yet’
Others are less convinced that Sturgeon’s time in office is coming to an end, however.
They point to the crisis she faced when her predecessor, Alex Salmond, tried to bring her down after he was cleared of attempted rape and sexual assault.
An independent inquiry into the Scottish government’s handling of the allegations against him saw Sturgeon cleared of breaking the ministerial code.
A separate probe found she had misled the Scottish parliament, but she survived a subsequent vote of no confidence.
One ally said: “On the one hand, she is facing the same challenges that governments across Europe are — the cost of living crisis, rising energy bills, a health service that isn’t doing what we need it to do.
“You then add to that gender recognition and independence stuff and you can see why it looks like she’s got things coming at her from all angles.
“Would she prefer not to be in this situation? Of course. Does it mean she’s nearing the end? I don’t think so.
“As difficult as things are for her at the moment, this is nothing compared to the Alex Salmond stuff. If she survived that, she can definitely survive this. Don’t write her off just yet.”
Sturgeon has also resumed the regular press conferences which earned her praise during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“You don’t put yourself through all that if you think the end is near,” said one MP.
Even one SNP opponent admitted: “To be fair to Nicola, if I’d been first minister for 10 years and my party was still polling at 44%, I’d be feeling pretty invincible.”
With no obvious successor waiting in the wings, it seems likely that Sturgeon will at the very least lead the SNP into next year’s general election, which will coincide with the 10th anniversary of her becoming party leader.
Whether she is still in the job at the time of the next Scottish elections in 2026 is much more uncertain.
Either way, it’s clear that the post-Sturgeon era is approaching. What the SNP and the independence movement look like then remains to be seen.