ST. ANDREWS, Scotland >> Nicola Sturgeon was late for her burgundy helicopter. It had taken her 45 minutes to traverse the 50 yards between the medieval church and the high street – and not just because of her perilous-looking designer heels.
Sturgeon, the leader of Scotland’s semiautonomous government, was campaigning for her Scottish National Party before Britain’s election on Thursday, and the reception, by the standards of British politics, was rapturous.
Teenagers screamed. Supporters wearing "I’m with Nicola" badges shouted her first name. Half a dozen schoolgirls had skipped class for the occasion and patiently lined up to take selfies. A grandfather wanted an autograph on his new party membership card. ("My whole family has joined, three generations," he said proudly.)
Then a man with a distinctly English accent approached. "I’m a fan from London," he told her. "I wish I could vote for you."
This affluent university town, where Prince William and Kate Middleton studied, has never elected a parliamentary candidate from the left-leaning separatist Scottish National Party, or SNP, in a general election. But this week, along with most of Scotland, it seems likely to do so.
Sturgeon, a 44-year-old feminist from the working-class county of Ayrshire in southwest Scotland who wants to lock the Conservatives out of power, rid Britain of its nuclear weapons and end austerity measures, has drawn the spotlight in the election campaign – and she is not even running for Parliament herself.
But if the opinion polls are to be believed, she is all but certain to emerge from the general election as a national political force, leading the party with the third-largest representation in the British Parliament in Westminster and ending the long-running dominance of the Labour Party in Scotland.
Barely known in England until she took over the SNP after the Scottish referendum last year, she gained new prominence after a series of televised debates for party leaders over the past few weeks. In one exchange, she challenged the head of the populist U.K. Independence Party, Nigel Farage, after he blamed immigrants for a housing crisis.
Immigrants "make a net contribution to our country," she told Farage. "So if we can maybe just put the boogeyman to one side, we can actually debate these issues for real and in substance," she continued, drawing thunderous applause from the audience.
"It’s astonishing – -" a shocked Farage began.
"You are, yes," Sturgeon retorted, to more cheers.
She adeptly used the stage to explain to a national audience why she wanted a higher minimum wage, more spending on health and child care and an end to steep budget cuts. Suddenly, people outside Scotland wanted to know if they could vote for the SNP.
They cannot. The party is only fielding parliamentary candidates in Scotland. But with neither the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron nor the Labour Party of his main rival, Ed Miliband, expected to win a majority in Westminster, Sturgeon could well determine the shape of the next British government – or whether one can be formed at all.
"Whatever the outcome, the winner of this election is called Nicola Sturgeon," said David Torrance, the author of her newly published biography.
Opinion polls suggest that the SNP, which has only six seats in the British Parliament, could win at least 45 of the 59 seats representing Scotland. That could be enough to give Labour a majority – if the two parties are willing to work together.
Miliband has so far ruled out a formal coalition, suggesting that he would expect the SNP to support his agenda in Parliament. Despite deep divisions over specific policies like nuclear disarmament and Scottish separatism, the two parties have similar economic platforms.
But as she made a dash for her campaign helicopter – Ayr Force One some here call it – Sturgeon said that Labour could not be trusted to make Britain a fairer country. "We can bring an influence to bear on Ed Miliband and a Labour government to make them more progressive," she said in an interview.
"There is as much of an appetite for political change in England as there is in Scotland," she continued. "Much of the feedback that I’ve had from people south of the border has been, ‘We wish we had the option of a party like the SNP.’ The fact that neither Labour nor the Tories are ahead in the polls reflects the fact that people think they haven’t got much of a choice."
The right-leaning tabloid The Daily Mail has called her "the most dangerous woman in British politics." Cameron has described a possible coalition between Miliband and Sturgeon as "a match made in hell." The Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson, likened her to a scorpion and said that allowing the SNP into a coalition government would be like putting King Herod in charge of a baby farm.