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25 April 2024updated 26 Apr 2024 10:53am

Humza Yousaf has turned on the Scottish Greens too late

The First Minister’s decision to end the power-sharing deal looks panicked rather than strategic.

By Chris Deerin

Earlier this week, questioned about the tottering coalition between the SNP and the Scottish Greens, Humza Yousaf said that he “thoroughly enjoyed” the partnership. “We’ve achieved a lot and I hope the cooperation agreement will continue.” This was consistent with all his utterances on the topic since he became First Minister just over a year ago. Humza loved the deal.

By today, under intense pressure from his own MSPs and MPs and with his government in open crisis, he had changed his mind. Following an emergency 8.30am cabinet meeting at Bute House, Yousaf announced that the coalition was over and that the SNP would govern as a minority administration until the next Holyrood election in 2026. He told the Green co-leaders and government ministers Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater that they had been sacked shortly before their now ex-colleagues gathered.

As love affairs often do, this one has ended bitterly. Slater accused Yousaf of an “act of political cowardice” and of behaving in a “weak and thoroughly hopeless way… when it comes to political cooperation, he can no longer be trusted”.

At a hastily organised press conference, a smiling Yousaf sought to appear relaxed and magnanimous, as of course he had to. Yet his comments, talking up the achievements of a difficult first year, felt weirdly Ruritanian. He insisted the decision to end the coalition had been his alone and “showed leadership”. The deal had “come to its natural conclusion… [and] served its purpose”, and the SNP would now govern as a minority administration, as it had in the past. In truth he came across as a man who had been heavily sat on by a number of colleagues and was seeking to squirm from under their combined weight.

What changed so quickly? The strain between the two parties had certainly grown since Nicola Sturgeon’s departure, as the Greens were seen to be behind a range of policies that damaged the government’s popularity, from gender reforms to a controversial and abandoned bottle-return scheme. Last weekend, Harvie refused to accept the findings of the Cass review into gender identity services for children, insisting that it had been “politicised and weaponised” against trans people. There was deep concern among senior Nats about the impact the deal was having on the SNP’s electoral prospects and the sense that the government’s priorities are woefully out of touch with middle Scotland.

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Relations worsened last week when an ambitious commitment to cut carbon emissions by 75 per cent by 2030 was abandoned. Green members were outraged and the party leadership agreed to give them a vote on whether the smaller party should stay in coalition. Then, the former SNP chief executive Peter Murrell was charged with embezzlement, as part of the Operation Branchform investigation by police into party finances. The situation was torrid.

The Bute House Agreement lasted two and a half years, having been signed by Sturgeon on 31 August 2021. The Nats now have two years to pass legislation through a parliament that owes them little and that will only become more hostile, including an enraged and possibly vengeful Green Party.

As has become customary, Yousaf emerges from the crisis looking weaker rather than stronger, even if his decision is the right one. “Feeble leadership,” was one MP’s instant, withering response. Joanna Cherry, a regular critic of the coalition, tweeted “excellent news. The Scottish Greens have brought nothing transformative to the table on climate change that was actually viable, their science-denying response to the Cass Report was disgraceful & their identity politics are toxic.” Another senior Nat told me: “I thought that by bringing the Greens into government we’d see them adapt in the way their German counterparts have. Instead they’ve proven ineffective and a complete drag and distraction.”

Had Yousaf decided to end the coalition earlier – and he had plenty of justification for doing so – he might have looked to be in control. Instead, he gives the impression of jumping before he was pushed: desperate and panicked, rather than calm and strategic.

Stephen Flynn, the increasingly influential leader of the SNP’s Westminster group, was seen in conversation on Wednesday with senior minister Angus Robertson during a rare visit to Holyrood. Given the large loss of seats the SNP is expecting at the general election, it’s unlikely Flynn was there to shoot the breeze.

From one perspective, Yousaf now has the chance to reset his ailing administration. He has continued Sturgeon’s focus on identity politics and social justice issues, ignoring calls to pivot towards a more rigorous approach to the economy and reform of public services. The Greens were explicitly opposed to economic growth and seemed to wield an outsize level of influence on the First Minister.

The question is whether Yousaf truly wants to pivot, or has it in him to do so. He said today that “the challenges of yesterday are not necessarily the challenges of tomorrow” and that the SNP needs the “freedom and flexibility” to adapt. “We need to speak to the country with one voice… Today marks a new beginning for the SNP government.” Yet his cabinet is made up of Sturgeonites who remain passionately committed to her agenda, and Yousaf himself ran for the leadership as a continuity candidate. This is probably his final opportunity to transform his fortunes, but it will require the kind of hard decisions that have so far seemed beyond him.

As for the independence dream, Sturgeon’s prized unity between the SNP and the Greens is over and the campaign to leave the UK looks more fractured than it has for many years.

The transparent lack of steadiness in their leader is also likely to strengthen the hand of those in the SNP who wonder whether a heavy defeat at this year’s general election should force Yousaf from office. “The stepping up he and his government need to do is huge. Has he realised that? No,” said one senior Nat.

“A parliament of minorities need not be a parliament of enemies,” said Yousaf, as he sought to plot a way through this mess. He is unlikely to have that wish granted.

[See also: Labour’s rail plans show Keir Starmer’s cautious populism]

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