19 April 2023

Can Humza Yousaf put out the SNP bin fire?


The tweet from a prominent Scottish journalist said it all: “Yousaf: I don’t believe the SNP is a criminal operation.”

Well, that’s reassuring. The party’s next conference slogan, perhaps?

The First Minister’s considered view was reached after the rozzers made their second-highest profile arrest so far in their investigation into the SNP’s finances, this time collaring the party’s treasurer, Colin Beattie MSP. 

It was bad timing all round: yesterday was Yousaf’s big day, when he made his first speech to the Scottish Parliament as First Minister, at which he set out his political priorities for the next few years.

Worthy and dull though his speech was – and he made it to the end without falling over and everything! – it was unlikely to detract from the continuing bin fire that is the SNP. Some might say that this couldn’t have happened to a nicer party, and they’d be right. But not even its most vociferous opponent could have guessed that when Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation back in February, things would have got this bad this quickly.

First of all, we can all agree now that the reasons she gave for her decision at that hastily-arranged press conference were utterly bogus.

The police had only just begun interviewing suspects in the investigation and the then First Minister will have known that her husband, Peter Murrell, who also happened to be the SNP’s chief executive at the time, was likely to be among those interviewed. And she must have been able to see how bad the optics would be if a serving First Minister’s husband was arrested. He was duly arrested and released without charge two weeks ago.

Then came the highly entertaining leadership election contest which was won, but only narrowly, by Humza Yousaf. And since then we’ve had the revelation that the party’s auditors resigned six months ago and haven’t yet been replaced. We’ve also seen video footage of Sturgeon, from early 2021, warning party members not to question the party’s finances, while insisting they had never been healthier – just a few months before Mr Murrell loaned the party £107,000 ‘to help with cash flow’. As you do.

And then there’s the camper van. If Sturgeon and Murrell had been using it to manufacture meth to sell to a Mexican drugs cartel, that would at least make more sense than what we have at the moment, which is an admission that the vehicle belongs to the SNP and was purchased to use as an election battle bus. Except that it has spent the last two years since it was bought (for £100,000, apparently) in the driveway of one Mrs Murrell, aged 90, the mother of… oh, join the dots yourself!

At the weekend, Yousaf brought all his authority to bear when he coined yet another memorable Yousafism: ‘We’re not close to bankruptcy’, in reference, thank goodness, to his party rather than the country. It was actually in response to a report to the party’s NEC by the aforementioned treasurer, Mr Beattie, who told members that the party was ‘having difficulty in balancing the books due to the reduction in membership and donors’.

It’s not that difficult to understand why donations may have dried up, given the unresolved allegation that £600,000 raised from members to fight a second independence referendum [sic] has not been accounted for, which is what started the police investigation in the first place. 

Also, at least some of the 30,000 members who cancelled their direct debits in the last two years did so because of Nicola Sturgeon’s obsessive quest to change the law so that 16-year-olds and sex offenders could change their legal gender without a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria. That law was vetoed by the UK government, but Yousaf has already announced that he intends to re-open the argument by appealing against that decision, despite the bill being unpopular with the Scottish public and very divisive within the SNP itself.

Oh, and the party faces a by-election contest if Margaret Ferrier (or ‘Margaret Covid’ as Nicola Sturgeon inadvertently called her), the MP for Rutherglen, who travelled from London to Glasgow in September 2020 in a busy train despite having been diagnosed with Covid 19, is suspended from the House for 30 days, making her immediately subject to a recall petition.

Apart from all that, things are going great for Yousaf. He clearly has a gargantuan level of belief in his own political skills, which is good because he is about to have to display them to full effect. He is the leader of a dysfunctional party that may or may not be on the brink of bankruptcy, is split down the middle following a divisive leadership election and whose former chief executive and serving treasurer have both been arrested.

On the plus side, they have a really nice camper van with very few miles on the clock.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.