The SNP’s achievements in government have "limped lamely behind their soaring rhetoric", a leading expert on the party has said, as the latest opinion poll registered a dip in support for Scottish independence.
James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh University who is widely considered a leading authority on the SNP, said that the nationalists "would be struggling" in the current campaign were it not for the pandemic and the constitution.
However, he said the party had managed to present itself as being "in government and opposition at the same time" and had been "blessed" with weak opposition parties and the fact that independence was a dominant campaign issue.
A poll for Survation recorded a slight dip in SNP support in constituencies ahead of Thursday’s vote - with the party down three points to 47 per cent. However, the party's predicted share of the vote on the regional lists was up by two, to 37.
The poll found that support for Scottish independence had fallen two points to 47 per cent, with 53 per cent now in favour of the union. However, the figures show the SNP will easily win Thursday’s election and a majority is within reach.
Prof Mitchell said that a revival for Labour would "create problems for the SNP" and said Nicola Sturgeon would far rather the Tories remained as Holyrood’s second-largest party.
However, despite Anas Sarwar’s personal approval ratings being high, the Survation poll suggested that crucial second votes were draining away from Labour.
While the party was neck-and-neck with the Tories on the constituency ballot, both on 21 per cent, Labour was down four points on the regional list voting intentions, to 18 per cent, with the Tories up two to 22.
The result suggests that the Tories' efforts to persuade pro-union voters to lend them their second vote may be working in the final days of the campaign.
"Failings in the handling of the pandemic, most obvious in discharging vulnerable elderly people into care homes at considerable cost to life, have had little impact on the SNP’s popularity," Prof Mitchell said in a column in The Guardian.
"The pandemic also shifts the focus away from the Scottish Government’s wider record during its time in office. Take independence and the pandemic out of the election, and the SNP would be struggling."
He said that Labour presented a threat to the SNP particularly if the party was to "offer an alternative to the current binary divide".
However, he said that while Mr Sarwar had been the "star" of the campaign, "rising leadership ratings have not been matched with rising levels of support for Labour".
The SNP’s failure to deliver on promises to tackle the educational attainment gap between rich and poor, reverse inequality, and their mishandling of care homes early in the pandemic have not impacted SNP popularity, Prof Mitchell said.
He added: "The SNP’s record ought to put it on the defensive. But the party presents itself as being in government and opposition at the same time. It governs in Edinburgh and uses this base to oppose London rule.
"The SNP approach to policymaking is reflected in its manifesto, which proposes to sprinkle goodies around, enough to create a headline or appease groups of voters, but not enough to have much impact on outcomes. Outcomes have limped lamely behind the SNP’s soaring rhetoric. The weaker the record, the greater the renewed promise."
Ms Sturgeon has said that if a pro-independence majority at Holyrood is returned this week, she intends to hold a new independence majority by 2023.
The UK Government has no plans to allow a new vote to go ahead regardless of the result, but believes its hand would be strengthened if the SNP does not gain an outright majority and instead has to rely on smaller pro-independence parties.
The Survation survey also found that 48 per cent of Scottish voters believed Ms Sturgeon would make the best First Minister, compared to 13 per cent for Douglas Ross and 12 per cent for Mr Sarwar.
More than two thirds of voters - 67 per cent - believed the Scottish Government had handled the pandemic well, compared to just 32 per cent who were satisfied with the UK Government’s performance.
Survation polled 1,008 Scots, aged 16 or over, between April 23 and April 26.