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25 January 2024updated 26 Jan 2024 11:53am

Nicola Sturgeon is still haunting Humza Yousaf

At the Covid inquiry, the First Minister could not escape his predecessor’s shadow.

By Chris Deerin

Not for the first time, Nicola Sturgeon stole Humza Yousaf’s thunder.

Unlike the First Minister, his predecessor wasn’t even in the Covid inquiry room today (25 January). But that didn’t matter – Sturgeon’s WhatsApp messages with her chief of staff Liz Lloyd were, and that was quite enough.

The messages were provided by Lloyd, as Sturgeon has somehow permanently deleted all of hers. Eyebrows rose when on to the screen flashed an exchange between the pair from 31 October 2020, the evening on which Boris Johnson announced a second UK lockdown

Watching the PM’s performance on television, Sturgeon told her aide that “this is fucking excruciating – their comms are AWFUL. His utter incompetence in every sense is now offending me on behalf of politicians everywhere.” To avoid any doubt, she added: “He is a fucking clown.” At this point, social media went into meltdown, many tweeting not in outrage at the unseemly language but in wholehearted agreement with the former first minister.

Lloyd is a smart cookie, performed steadily, and wasn’t really caught out. She denied the Scottish government had used the pandemic to advance the case for independence, and insisted a message in which she said she wanted “a good old fashioned rammy” with Westminster was due to frustration with the way the UK government was behaving. During four-nation calls with Johnson, she said, the PM gave the impression that he “didn’t want to be on the calls… wasn’t particularly well briefed. Engagement with him came to be seen as slightly pointless.”

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Much of the Scottish leg of the inquiry has come to fixate on what critics have called the “industrial-scale” deletion of WhatsApp messages by ministers including Sturgeon and her deputy John Swinney. Yousaf admitted this was “not good enough”. Initially, he had been unable to access his own exchanges on the app, though he said yesterday he had eventually managed to find them after logging in on an old phone, where they were still stored. 

Lawyers are also focusing on the way in which Sturgeon ran government during the pandemic, whether her cabinet was consulted on important decisions, and whether there was and is a deliberate lack of transparency and accountability. Yousaf admitted that she sometimes wanted a “tighter cast list”. This was put more starkly in a message from national clinical director Jason Leitch, who told him after one meeting that “there was some First Minister ‘keep it small’ shenanigans as always. She actually wants none of us.”

The current First Minister began by promising the inquiry that he would “endeavour to give straight answers to straight questions”. And indeed Yousaf lived up to this for the first few minutes, before the questions got a bit sticky.

He engaged in a somewhat tortured debate with inquiry lead counsel Jamie Dawson KC about whether the details of discussions that took place on his WhatsApp had been transferred to the Scottish government’s corporate record, so that the thought processes and discussions, as well as the decisions around Covid policy, were stored permanently.

The key and much-repeated phrase by Yousaf was that “salient points” had been transferred, which is obviously a line given to him by his civil servants. It appeared to mean something different to Yousaf than it did to Dawson. Did the “salient points” mean that all relevant discussions were now available on the corporate record? “Would”, asked Dawson, “it be possible for us to perform a comparison between the corporate record and your messages to ascertain whether you’d recorded ‘salient points’ on the corporate record? If it were to transpire that the material we can see in these messages was not put on to the corporate record would the bond of trust with the Scottish people be broken?”

At this barely concealed threat of future humiliation – “salient points were recorded on the record,” Yousaf bullishly and perhaps foolishly insisted – the First Minister looked more than a little alarmed, and began doodling on his notepad, shuffling papers and looking down at his hands rather than maintaining eye contact with his interrogator. It was a poker tell and all a little weaselly – a bit “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”

As the afternoon wore on, Yousaf came to resemble the political equivalent of a footballer rushed back too soon from injury. He grew repetitive, appeared mentally tired, increasingly relied on jargon and cliches, and became worryingly light on the detail. 

The difficult questions about his period as health secretary – a job he held until becoming First Minister last March – arrived thick and fast, and he sounded like he couldn’t get to the end of his answers quickly enough. There was little light cast on why expert groups were suddenly asked to meet less regularly; about why he relied on Leitch – his WhatsApp bro, often messaged multiple times an hour – so heavily rather than the wide variety of expert advisers available to him; about whether, as the Omicron covid variant ripped through the Scottish population, he might have been focused on the wrong priorities; and whether he had really sought thorough, ongoing briefings about the complex issues he faced. 

It is often said by colleagues that as a minister Yousaf rarely gave the impression of being fully across his brief, and on this performance one could see their point. In summary, it isn’t clear what level of leadership – if any – Yousaf delivered through the Covid crisis, and indeed why he was made health minister in the first place. If Sturgeon did decide to make decisions based on her own instincts and the input of a small, tight group of advisers, largely keeping the current FM out of her inner circle and the public eye, it’s now clearer why. How strange, though, that she chose such a mediocre performer as her successor.

Perhaps Sturgeon might clear that matter up – along with all the rest – when she appears before the inquiry in person next Wednesday.

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