On Monday (27 March) Scotland will learn whether Humza Yousaf or Kate Forbes is to be its next first minister. SNP members are making a difficult choice, and one that will do much to determine the party’s immediate future. But the mishandling of Nicola Sturgeon’s departure and the unexpectedly brutal nature of the contest to succeed her may already have inflicted fatal damage.
The implosion of the SNP has been an extraordinary spectacle. In common with all departing leaders, Sturgeon has sought to use her final days to define the terms of her legacy, only drawing attention to the weakness of the current leadership field. A conveyor belt of resignations and controversies has left the party looking unstable and seedy. Its membership is now confirmed to have fallen by more than 30,000 from 104,000 in 2021.
The First Minister and her fan club have championed Yousaf, but as the race has progressed this has come to seem more and more like a mistake. The health secretary has not grown into the stature they have attempted to confer on him. The polls suggest voters have taken a look and are unimpressed by what they see – a pet who is being asked to become master, a politician unaware of his own limitations and who lacks the qualities needed in a national leader.
As the past month has wound on and the pressure has built, there has been an almost physical dishevelment of Yousaf. He has been inconstant, too, swerving around on key policy areas based on shallow political calculation – will he challenge the UK government on the gender recognition reform bill or not? Is his policy on independence to go fast or slow? Is the Scottish NHS in good health under his watch or does it require urgent reform? We’re none the wiser.
[See also: Where did it go wrong for Nicola Sturgeon?]
Forbes, the finance secretary, should be far behind by now, given the party elite almost uniformly backs her main competitor. But all surveys have shown the general public prefer her candidacy, and that SNP voters are equally divided between her and Yousaf. She has kept her dignity and focus in trying circumstances, and looks the most prepared for the top job.
Forbes’s description of the Sturgeon ministry as “mediocre” angered many in her party – there have been threats of refusal to serve in her cabinet and even talk of resignations – but she wasn’t wrong. If the SNP is to reach 2030 in government it needs to change at a fundamental level. Continuity may console the hardliners, but the times and the national mood are shifting. It would be profoundly unwise not to recognise this.
In the course of the past week I have had conversations with senior figures from the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. Each believes the nationalist moment is coming to an end, and that the collapse may occur surprisingly quickly. Both the Tory and the Lib Dem admitted ruefully that this will be overwhelmingly to Labour’s benefit.
For the first time, there is discussion of whether Labour could emerge as the largest party at the 2026 Holyrood election. In 2022 the SNP secured 64 seats, only one shy of an overall majority. Labour, with 22 seats, was far behind and this gulf was previously regarded as too wide to close within a single five-year parliament.
It remains a formidable challenge, but there is a sense among the opposition parties that support for the SNP could now deflate like a soufflé, particularly if Yousaf wins and lives down to expectations. A Tory minister told me that while Forbes would be better at government, and pursue smoother and more constructive relations with Westminster, she would also be a greater danger to the Union. She is most likely to charm voters, to enjoy a honeymoon, and in time build a more convincing case for independence. But, the minister added, there had to be real doubt that she could unite her independence-obsessed and somewhat weary party behind a reform agenda, which would require patience and determination.
A Labour government at Westminster could take the sting out of softer anti-Union sentiment – Keir Starmer and his shadow cabinet are visiting target constituencies in Scotland on an almost weekly basis. The departure of the dominant Sturgeon will allow more space for Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour’s impressive leader, to be heard, and he expects to win a healthy share of seats at next year’s general election.
By 2026, after nearly two decades of SNP rule, and with the party’s major figures all having departed the scene, the classic “time for a change” argument could have real resonance among the electorate. Whichever candidate wins on Monday they may be overtaken by an incoming tide.
[See also: Scotland needs its own Rishi Sunak]