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12 April 2024updated 17 Apr 2024 10:20am

Is the SNP prepared to oust Humza Yousaf?

Senior party figures know their leader’s project has failed and that it cannot be reconstructed.

By Chris Deerin

Can Humza Yousaf survive a thrashing at the general election? Possibly, perhaps even probably. Should he? A different question with a different answer.

Scotland’s First Minister has been in post for just over a year, a period that amounts to a sorry tale of missteps, crises self-inflicted and otherwise, and the initially slow and now not-so-slow dissipation of authority.

For SNP politicians used to the whip-smart drive and popularity that came with the leadership of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, it is all a bit of a head-scratcher. They have grown entitled and comfortable on the back of prolonged success, of doing what they are told and watching opponents tumble at their feet. Yousaf won the race to succeed Sturgeon – if only just – on the assumption that the machine would continue to deliver. The machine effectively told party members that if they voted for Yousaf over Kate Forbes, all would be well.

All is not well. All is very far from well. The First Minister has taken to the highest office like a hedgehog to a rush-hour motorway. Without a clear plan to circumvent the traffic, he has been knocked from pillar to post. It is only a matter of time until he becomes political roadkill.

When I interviewed him for the New Statesman shortly before Christmas, I left Bute House charmed by the human being but slightly alarmed by the lack of clarity and grip he displayed on matters of policy and politics. His evidence to the Covid inquiry was somewhat overshadowed by Sturgeon’s tears, but should have commanded much more attention than it did – it revealed a man who had been thoroughly out of his depth as health secretary during the greatest health and social trauma we have faced in our lifetimes, reliant on an overweening first minister and a coterie of experts who told him what to think and say.

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Perhaps, had he taken over at the height of the Nats’ pomp, matters would be different – Scottish Labour was a mess, the electorate still believed in the SNP, and Westminster was an ongoing horror show. Those circumstances no longer pertain. Anas Sarwar has brought stability, credibility and energy to the opposition, the voters can increasingly see through the empty, philosophically muddled nationalist project, and Keir Starmer will soon be in Downing Street, in part because he is going to win a bundle of Scottish seats currently held by Yousaf’s party.

The headlines over the past few weeks have been dominated by Scottish government policy that is almost precision-tooled to irritate ordinary voters. The enactment of the hate crime legislation has seen a blizzard of petty complaints to police – more than 7,000 in its first fortnight. This also rekindled the gender wars, which have returned owing to the shocking if unsurprising findings of the Cass Review. The ability of the Greens to wag the SNP dog has again become evident with Patrick Harvie’s pious and inflammatory banning of wood burning stoves. Yousaf still shows no sign of being able to say no to this authoritarian shower.

I’m told that the long and painstaking police investigation into SNP finances has significantly progressed, has established wrongdoing, and that it will reach its conclusion in the near future. This is now a government and leadership at the mercy of events, wholly unable to create any kind of positive narrative, and that is only heading in one direction.

Senior SNP figures know the Yousaf project has failed, and that it cannot be reconstructed – it lacks both the political nous and the raw materials. “He just doesn’t have it, whatever it is,” one parliamentarian told me. A wearied shake of the head commonly greets a query about how things are going. The party’s MPs at Westminster expect a slaughter in the autumn – some are standing down, others are already exploring their prospects for alternative employment. In my experience, there are few Yousaf apologists left who are not on the payroll in one form or another, and even they seem a little half-hearted.

The cautious, mild-mannered pollster John Curtice has delivered a verdict which, for him, amounts to donning a judicial black cap – “There are clearly not inconsiderable doubts within the party about his competence,” he said of Yousaf last month. “Nobody questions that he’s a nice chap, that he’s intellectually able, but whether he’s got what it takes to provide leadership is another thing.”

Usually, it is elections that decide whether a leader stays or goes. In the wake of a thumping, sensible parties seek to stop the rot, or at least limit further damage. It is only fair to give Yousaf a run at the general election to prove the doomsayers wrong. But what then? If the Nats are reduced from their current cohort of 43 of the 59 Scottish seats at Westminster to 20 or fewer – which in relative terms will amount to a rump, and be fewer than Labour holds – what happens next?

The party can’t raise any money due to the controversies over its funding and a lack of belief in its immediate prospects. Independence is indefinitely postponed. The agenda for government amounts to little more than attritional attacks on individual and collective liberties, the kind of do-goodery which sounds fine among the believers who sit around the cabinet table but fails to survive contact with reality. There is still no plan to turn around the decline in educational performance or the shattered NHS.

I’m not one for I told you so’s, but this outcome was predictable, and indeed predicted by me and others. Forbes was clearly the outstanding candidate to replace Sturgeon, and would have reset the purpose of government in a way that aligned with the electorate’s priorities and breathed dynamism into the administration. The public liked and rated her. There was a reason Labour didn’t want her to win.

The general election will almost certainly provide the SNP with a choice. Does it stick with the damaged Yousaf, perhaps because it has grown fatalistic, perhaps because it’s not the kind of party that removes its leaders? Is it too arrogant to understand and admit the disconnect that has grown and will grow further with people in the central belt, in rural Scotland, on the islands? Does it all seem a bit soon to force its (relatively) new leader from office? 

Here’s a friendly warning. Under this leadership, it’s very, very hard to see the 2026 Holyrood election going well for the SNP. It is impossible to see Humza Yousaf as anything other than an underwhelming full-stop to the long era of SNP hegemony. So will this proud party go gently, stumbling around in a fug of its own assumed moral rectitude, or will it wake up and fight?

[See also: Women writers and the lure of deep England]

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