Nicola Sturgeon is facing a fresh crisis after she was accused by Alex Salmond of having “thrown away” years of campaigning for Scottish independence over her controversial trans laws.
In his first public intervention in the row over transgender rapist Isla Bryson being sent to a women’s prison, Mr Salmond, Ms Sturgeon’s predecessor as first minister, said nationalists had managed to drive up support for independence to above 50 per cent in the polls.
But he said her “self-indulgent nonsense” on gender self-identification laws had seen backing decline.
Ms Sturgeon insisted she was not spooked by a YouGov poll, published at the weekend, which found backing for separation down from 53 per cent to 47 per cent in a month, and support for the SNP at a Westminster election at 42 per cent.
The First Minister has said next year’s general election will be a “de facto” independence referendum requiring 50 per cent of the popular vote for victory.
Mr Salmond told a Burns Supper for his Alba Party in Dundee on Saturday that he had assumed the leaders of the nationalist movement “well understood” the need to win over “every part and section” of Scotland.
In footage posted on Twitter, he said: “But to get to a position where you say to a majority of our people that you cannot have single-sex spaces – prized and worked and strived for – because of some daft ideology imported from elsewhere and, as we’ve seen, imperfectly understood by its proponents in Scotland, borders on the totally absurd,” he said.
“And the six per cent decline in independence vote over a month – think about that.
“Thirty years of gradually building, building, building until we get independence over 50 per cent and then thrown away with some self-indulgent nonsense, which even if it was right, which it isnae, would hardly be tactically the most astute manoeuvre when we’re meant to be taking Scotland to its next date with destiny.”
The crisis around Ms Sturgeon’s leadership intensified on Monday when she referred to Bryson as “her” following days of refusing to say whether she regarded the transgender rapist as male or female.
Challenged at a press conference about the “Freudian slip” and whether she regarded Bryson as female, the First Minister said: “She regards herself a woman, I regard the individual as a rapist.”
She also attempted to calm the civil war in the SNP by insisting MPs and MSPs who oppose her Gender Recognition Reform Bill did not have to stand down. Shirley-Anne Somerville, the education secretary and a Sturgeon loyalist, suggested at the weekend that they should consider quitting.
In a victory for her internal critics and a sign of her waning authority, Ms Sturgeon said: “I don’t think anyone should be prevented from standing because they disagree with party policy on one particular issue.”
She said the Gender Recognition Reform Bill was “not about ideology, it’s about the rights of a minority in our society who already struggle with stigma and discrimination”.
Joanna Cherry, the Edinburgh South West MP and a prominent critic of the reforms, tweeted: “Pleased to hear Nicola Sturgeon confirmed at her press conference that I should not be prevented from standing again for the SNP because of my opposition to the #GRRBill. I hope others will now take her lead, back off & leave the decision to local members.”
The YouGov poll showed Ms Sturgeon’s first negative approval rating sine June 2018, but she told a press conference on Monday that polls go up and down and the SNP would still win a “landslide victory” if there was a Westminster or Holyrood election now.
Court chiefs had wanted to send Bryson to Glasgow’s men-only Barlinnie prison, but the rapist was instead initially sent to Cornton Vale women’s jail after being convicted last month.
Scottish Prison Service guidance says trans criminals should be sent to the prison that matches their self-identified gender that they were living in prior to their conviction. Bryson was named Adam Graham when committing the rapes and has not legally changed gender. Following a public outcry, the rapist was moved to a men’s cell in Edinburgh’s Saughton jail.
Ms Sturgeon told last week’s First Minister’s Questions that Bryson was “almost certainly” only claiming to be transgender as an “easy way out”. However, she has also said that “trans women are women” and Keith Brown, her Justice Secretary, stated that Bryson was female.
The First Minister told the press conference that her Gender Recognition Reform Bill, which would allow people born or resident in Scotland aged over 16 to change their legal gender by signing a statutory declaration, would strengthen the law.
She said: “My comments about her, the person being a rapist, is in the context of what should happen to them in the prison service.”
Asked whether her description of Bryson as “her” meant she considered the rapist to be a woman, Ms Sturgeon said: “I’m trying to rationally deal with the issues that arise here, and that’s what I’ll continue to try to do.”
Asked again why she had referred to Bryson as “her”, Ms Sturgeon said: “I can’t remember. What I’m saying is, Isla Bryson calls herself a woman. But what I’m trying to say is, in the context of the prison service, that is not the relevant factor here. The relevant factor is the crime that the individual has committed and has been convicted of.”
Rachael Hamilton, the Scottish Tory shadow equalities spokeswoman, said: “Nicola Sturgeon has betrayed her true feelings by referring to a double rapist as she. It was a telling slip but hardly a surprising one given how the First Minister has tied herself in knots over this issue and repeatedly U-turned.”
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