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Does Humza Yousaf’s resignation help or hurt Scottish Labour?

A new SNP leader could prove more of an electoral challenge than the beleaguered incumbent.

By Freddie Hayward

Humza Yousaf has resigned as SNP leader after he realised that he would not survive two confidence votes later this week. It marks the end of a short, unsuccessful tenure as Nicola Sturgeon’s successor. Yousaf failed to reverse the sense of decay surrounding the party. He was weighed down by the ongoing police investigation into SNP finances, a botched approach to gender policy and the party infighting that followed Sturgeon’s departure.

But it was the relationship with the SNP’s coalition partners, the Scottish Greens, that proved fatal. After he last week abandoned the Bute House Agreement with the Greens following internal pressure (something that Kate Forbes called for in her exclusive interview with Jason Cowley last December), the Greens suggested that they could no longer support the minority SNP government in the forthcoming confidence vote. Yousaf admitted in his speech that he “clearly underestimated” the hurt he’d caused by ending the Bute House Agreement.

An SNP leadership election will now take place and Yousaf will remain as Scottish First Minister until his successor is chosen. That decision may rule out the coronation of a caretaker leader such as John Swinney, the former leader, current Deputy First Minister and a Sturgeon ally. Nonetheless, Swinney has said he is actively considering running for the leadership. The former SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford has already endorsed him.

Other potential candidates include Kate Forbes, who sits on the party’s right, which could mean she is able to work with the Conservatives; Neil Gray, the Health Secretary; and Jenny Gilruth, the Education Secretary. By convention, the party leader is an MSP, which rules out the Westminster leader Stephen Flynn.

[See also: Kate Forbes: The rooted nomad]

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Following Yousaf’s resignation speech, Labour’s Anas Sarwar immediately called for an early Scottish Parliament election, which is due in 2026. Sarwar clearly senses an opportunity to oust a floundering SNP government, a situation that some in Labour note has many parallels with that at Westminster. If the contest was closer to the general election that would help ensure Scottish Labour avoided any backlash against the party two years into a Labour administration at Westminster.

And yet Labour should not welcome the departure of an electoral asset as profitable as Yousaf. His replacement could prove more able at challenging Labour’s narrative than the incumbent.

Nevertheless, the perception that the SNP is talking to itself rather than the country has been underlined. Some in the party hope that Yousaf’s exit will trigger an overhaul of party policy and personnel. The leadership has spent recent months clamping down on free speech and fighting with the Greens over climate targets. Moving towards voters’ priorities, some think, is the only path to electoral success.

[See also: Scotland is missing elder statesmen]

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