5 April 2023

So, Humza Yousaf – how’s your new job working out?


Just over a week since the new SNP leader was elected, and it’s fair to say he seems to be avoiding a honeymoon period. His inaugural session of First Minister’s Questions was repeatedly disrupted by protesters, and the latest polling suggests bigger SNP losses even than those suffered by his party at the 2017 general election.

And that was before the police cordoned off Nicola Sturgeon’s garden to set up a forensic tent.

Peter Murrell, Sturgeon’s husband and the party’s former chief executive, has been ‘arrested as a suspect’ after an 18-month investigation into what happened to £600,000 of donations to the party.

Little can be said about the case now that it is ‘active’, which will come as a relief to Yousaf next time he fields questions from MSPs. But events have served to cast a shadow – perhaps only a temporary one, but a shadow nonetheless – over Sturgeon’s legacy. It certainly makes life more difficult for Yousaf, whose primary task is to motivate his members to campaign for the party even as he is forced to admit that the only thing they’re remotely interested in campaigning for – another independence referendum – isn’t on the cards.

The danger for Yousaf is obvious. In 2017, after Theresa May called her snap general election, the SNP won 37% of the vote in Scotland and lost 21 of the 56 seats it had won just two years previously. This was largely because SNP voters weren’t motivated enough to come out and vote. The nationalists learned their lesson – that independence must always be at the forefront of every policy announcement, every speech, whatever the purported content of said announcements and speeches. The prospect of a rerun referendum must always be dangled temptingly in front of voters’ faces.

The tactic worked and the SNP regained many of those losses at the December 2019 election.

Next time round, Yousaf has to motivate his activists to get out and campaign, and has to encourage SNP voters to come out and vote, in the sure and certain knowledge that a second referendum isn’t happening any time soon, if ever. We know this to be true because the Supreme Court – at Sturgeon’s urging – said so. It remains to be seen what further impact on party morale the police investigation into party finances will have.

It’s hard to imagine how Yousaf’s time in office could have got off to a worse start. Unlike his predecessor, who was appointed to the top job by acclamation rather than having to face a contest, Yousaf had to fight hard against a formidable and popular candidate to win a (narrow) majority of party members’ votes.

His first order of business is to grapple with the complicated and controversial issue of gender recognition for trans people. Having started his campaign by seeking to exploit discontent with his rival, Kate Forbes’s, opposition to same-sex marriage, the new First Minister has rather boxed himself into the position of being Scotland’s new Justin Trudeau, even though he only barely survived revelations that he went to extraordinary lengths to avoid voting on the same sex marriage legislation himself.

Now he must decide whether or not to proceed with a legal challenge to the UK government’s decision to effectively veto the widely unpopular gender recognition reform legislation passed by Holyrood. If he doesn’t, the Scottish Greens, for whom preferred pronouns are the top priority, might walk away from the arrangement with the SNP that gives their co-leaders (of course they have ‘co-leaders’) ministerial jobs and gives the SNP an overall majority in parliament.

He also has to decide whether or not to follow through on campaign promises to delay the imminent deposit return scheme that has been dreamed up by the Greens and which promises to make the Scottish Government’s ferry-building record look like a wonderful success story by comparison.

And on top of that, he still has to wrestle with the legacy of the former cabinet secretary for health who has bequeathed the new First Minister the worst waiting times in history (the former cabinet secretary being one H. Yousaf).

As if he didn’t have enough to contend with, Mr Yousaf has a double booking in his diary for the same day. He’s agreed to attend the King’s coronation in the Imperial Capital while also agreeing to speak at an independence rally in Glasgow on the same day. I suspect the avowed republican will find some plausible reason to attend the former while sending a message of support to the latter: at least in Westminster Abbey he won’t be constantly accosted by people shouting in his face: ‘When are we getting a referendum, eh? EH?!’

You never know, mind you. It says something about the current state of the post-Sturgeon SNP that the arrest of the former chief executive and husband of the last First Minister isn’t even the worst of Humza Yousaf’s problems.

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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.