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  1. Election 2024
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8 February 2024

Michael Matheson’s resignation deepens Humza Yousaf’s woes

The Scottish health secretary’s delayed departure will only add to questions over the First Minister’s judgement.

By Chris Deerin

The Scottish health secretary has resigned, and the only question is why he survived as long as he did.

Michael Matheson was facing the conclusion of an investigation by Holyrood’s corporate body into an £11,000 expense claim for the use of his parliamentary iPad while on holiday in Morocco. 

The claim was paid out of public funds, before Matheson was forced to pay it back, after admitting the bill had been racked up by his sons watching football. He had initially lied to journalists about the cause of the huge payment, later claiming he was trying to protect his family.

The initial expense claim was a good enough reason for him to be sacked. In any decent political culture, the subsequent lie should have sealed his fate. But this is not the SNP way – as with previous scandals, it dug in and hoped the furore would pass.

Matheson clearly realised the inquiry was not going to look kindly on his actions, and jumped before he had to be pushed. 

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But there was no apology in his letter of resignation to First Minister Humza Yousaf. “I am conscious that this process will conclude in the coming weeks,” he wrote. “It is in the best interest of myself and the government for me to now step down to ensure this does not become a distraction to taking forward the government’s agenda.” 

The loss of Matheson is a political blow to Yousaf, of whom he was a close ally. The health secretary was also an experienced minister, having served in various cabinet jobs for the past 13 years. The delayed resignation will only add to questions that keep arising about the First Minister’s judgement.

Yousaf will act quickly to appoint a successor – some in the SNP are pushing for him to offer the job to Kate Forbes, who he narrowly defeated for the SNP leadership last year. Forbes has become a formidable and free-thinking presence on the backbenches, and is viewed as an alternative leader-in-waiting. She would bring reforming zeal and intellectual heft to the role, and her appointment would also serve to heal some of the damaging divisions that have opened up in the SNP.

However, Yousaf has shown himself to be a particularly tribal politician – his first cabinet was replete with left-of-centre progressives in the mould of predecessor Nicola Sturgeon. Yousaf had presented himself as the continuity candidate. The SNP’s coalition partners, the Scottish Greens, would also take issue with Forbes rejoining the government due to her social and economic views.

Balanced against this, the NHS in Scotland is in a state of crisis and desperately in need of change. A steady and dynamic minister would please medics and the health unions, who have called on the devolved government to accelerate reform across areas such as recruitment, funding and technology.

The decision Yousaf takes now will tell us much about whether he has learned any lessons from his difficult first year in office.

[See also: Labour’s £28bn U-turn comes with serious risks]

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