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26 April 2024

Humza Yousaf is finished

“Humza the Brief” is Alex Salmond’s brutal epithet for Scotland’s hapless First Minister.

By Chris Deerin

“Humza the Brief” is Alex Salmond’s brutal epithet for Scotland’s hapless First Minister. Humza Yousaf may not be gone yet – and may still survive a motion of no confidence at Holyrood next week – but he is done. All authority has fled; the mission has failed and needs to be aborted.

His senior colleagues in the SNP know this and internal discussions have begun about who should replace him, and when  – either in the coming weeks or after the general election if he can stagger on. Former leadership candidate Kate Forbes is being advised by allies to prepare a smarter campaign than last time, and Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth is said to be on manoeuvres. Will they wait for the fall, or feel compelled to force it?

Yousaf is a case study in being careful what you wish for. An underwhelming cabinet minister, he has unsurprisingly continued to underwhelm in Bute House. His best – and I’ve no doubt he’s tried his hardest to make things work – simply isn’t good enough, and this is now understood across the SNP. Personal ambition, without a clear agenda and basic political nous, is never enough. The party knows the Humza show is in effect over, the opposition parties know it, the voters know it. Even his mentor Nicola Sturgeon must finally be willing to admit that her support for him was the last in her series of fatal misjudgements.

Scotland’s government is in abeyance as its parliament decides the future of the nation’s leader. Labour has today tabled a motion of no confidence in the entire administration, on top of the Tory confidence vote on Yousaf himself. The needs of a country that has more social and economic problems than it can number are once again taking second place to SNP psychodrama, just a year after the last such outbreak. Never again should we hear Scottish ministers deriding the Tories for running through prime ministers like pairs of socks.

One can argue that Yousaf was right to oust the risible Greens from government and still be aghast at the inept way in which he did so. When you’ve spent a year professing your love and publicly praised your marriage only two days before, you can’t be surprised that the spurned partner turns on you when you suddenly serve divorce papers.

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That the Greens are a barely-adult version of student politicians, with little instinct for self-reflection or compromise, should surely have told Yousaf that they were unlikely to go quietly. When the Tories announced their vote of no confidence, the vengeful and abruptly de-limoed leaders of the Greens, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, declared they would back it. One hell of an out-of-office message.

The numbers, if they stay as they are, are grim for Yousaf. The Green rebellion means that 64 of Holyrood’s 129 MSPs oppose Yousaf’s survival in office. Ash Regan, who ran against him for the SNP leadership and later defected to Salmond’s Alba party, would make it a majority of 65.

The First Minister will, as they all do, fight until the end to stay in office. Regan (effectively Salmond’s proxy) will surely be offered various bribes. As an opponent of the gender reform bill and an independence fundamentalist, she is demanding new protections for women and children and a renewed drive to break up the UK. 

This morning, it appears that the Greens, despite their description yesterday of Yousaf as “weak” and “thoroughly hopeless”, might also be biddable. Slater, perhaps realising quite how peripheral her party will be without any alliance with the SNP, now says that “nobody has reached out to us in any way to try and change our minds so we’ll have to see how events develop”.

Whatever happens, if Yousaf is to survive even in the short term, he will need to cut deals. But how does he reconcile his own disgruntled backbenchers, the vengeful Salmond and the Greens all at once? He can only cling on – events don’t lend themselves to an inspiring new agenda for government, even if Yousaf was capable of such an act.

The horse-trading over the weekend will be vigorous, and perhaps Yousaf will inch over the line. But to all intents and purposes he is finished. Some voters will be watching this latest self-inflicted calamity through their fingers, others will be giggling along. Neither group thought much of the First Minister before, and will think even less now. “Things can 100 per cent get worse,” one Nat tells me.

The larger and harsher truth is that the Greens weren’t even the SNP’s biggest problem. The police investigation into party funding, which saw former chief executive Peter Murrell charged last week in connection with embezzlement, rumbles on and there may be further arrests and charges soon. But mainly, Yousaf is the problem. He has failed to display grip. “Yousaf has had control over policy and delivery and the general reputation of the government,” one senior SNP parliamentarian told me. “The idea that ditching the Greens solves even a majority of our problems was always a canard. And the one thing you don’t do with Patrick Harvie, given the size of his ego, is humiliate him – that’s precisely what Humza did.”

Another senior party source says that even if Yousaf wins the confidence vote, the SNP are “politically devastated. That’s the case for Humza personally, it’s on him, and it’s obvious from the conversations that people have moved on from him. We will have to make a change after the general election.”

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