The SNP must act quickly ahead of the general election as it faces its toughest period in 20 years, Nicola Sturgeon’s former chief of staff has said.

Liz Lloyd was the closest adviser to the former first minister until she resigned from the top post and as leader of the SNP in March 2023 after more than eight years in charge.

This triggered a turbulent leadership challenge which saw divisions emerge within the party before the contest was ultimately won by Humza Yousaf.

SNP annual conferenceHumza Yousaf took over as Scottish First Minister and SNP leader following Ms Sturgeon’s resignation (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Policies left behind by Ms Sturgeon, including controversial gender reforms and the fallout from the Bute House Agreement with the Scottish Greens, presented challenges for the new leadership.

Now, speaking to the BBC World at One programme on New Year’s Day, Ms Lloyd said “small rumblings” of division remained – but she insisted Mr Yousaf has a clear opportunity to turn the tide ahead of the expected 2024 general election.

“This is probably the hardest year the party has faced since maybe 2004/2005,” she told the programme.

“It needs to switch the narrative in Scotland from one of Labour gaining to one of the SNP fighting back – and being seen to credibly fight back.

Nicola SturgeonMs Sturgeon stepped down in 2023 after eight years in charge (Jane Barlow/PA)

“It’s very much struggling to get its own message across. It has an opportunity. There is time ahead of a general election to do that, but it needs to do that really quickly.”

A major setback came in October’s Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, when Labour won the seat following the recall of former SNP MP Margaret Ferrier.

Ms Lloyd added that Mr Yousaf could look to make changes ahead of the election, including a “small reshuffle” which would give him time to set out his own agenda.

“Humza Yousaf has had nine months to clear the decks of policies that were left over from the Nicola Sturgeon time – issues which were causing him difficulty,” she said.

“He now has, ahead of the election, an opportunity to say: ‘This is my agenda, this is what I’m about’ – and deliver on it so that people can make a judgment on it.

“I think they need to look at making some changes – maybe a small reshuffle – things that put the SNP back on the front foot which it very much hasn’t been for the last nine months.”

An SNP spokesperson said: “With neither the Tories or Labour offering any alternative for people across Scotland being forced to pay the cost of a failing Westminster system and broken Brexit economy, the SNP is focused on continuing to deliver for communities and businesses across Scotland with the limited powers at our disposal.

“As we approach the next general election, the SNP is looking forward to offering people a positive vision for the future and the chance to elect hard-working MPs who will always put Scotland’s priorities first.”