AS I SEE IT: TERRY MURDEN says Humza Yousaf has to turn from dreamer to fixer if he is to fend off growing unrest in his party
Humza Yousaf is marking a month since becoming First Minister, four weeks that have seen a level of turmoil in his party to test a veteran, but enough for some within his party to be already calling time on his chances of long-term survival. With division and discontent eroding the party’s support the knives are out for Mr Yousaf, so he needs to watch his back.
There is talk of a plot to replace him with losing leadership rival Kate Forbes, though on the evidence of one newspaper report it looks like little more than a combination of wishful thinking, conspiracy and panic.
More worrying for the new leader is a litany of policy and management challenges, ranging from a court hearing to the party’s struggles to meet a crucial deadline for auditing its accounts. While many are legacy issues, he is doing himself no favours with some self-inflicted wounds.
From the outset I suspected – and told those who asked – that he may prove to be an interim leader and that as the Conservative party realised after electing Liz Truss instead of Rishi Sunak, the SNP would accept that rejecting Kate Forbes in favour of Mr Yousaf was a mistake.
Let’s be clear. He is no Liz Truss. He has not announced a reckless and uncosted tax and spend budget and sent the markets into a tailspin (though even if he did declare a similar budget the markets are not much bothered by what the Scottish Government does).
However, his patchy record in Cabinet posts together with a mis-reading of the public’s growing scepticism about the independence campaign as well as a growing likelihood that he will lose a legal battle over the gender recognition legislation has raised similar early questions about his authority over his party and the country.
According to those who planted the “Forbes coup” in a Forbes-supporting Sunday newspaper there have been behind-closed-doors talks with MSPs and MPs with a view to making a move to oust the new First Minister. Few appear confident of anything happening any time soon, but the smell of treachery is enough to rattle any leader.
If Mr Yousaf thought his first month was a baptism of fire, littered with resignations and arrests, he is about to enter a new phase that will seriously test his mettle. Aside from the court hearing over the gender issue, there is a potential by-election in Rutherglen & Hamilton West if Margaret Ferrier, the former SNP MP, is ousted after being reprimanded by parliament for breaking Covid rules.
Party insiders are also bracing themselves for former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon being questioned by the police in connection with the ongoing investigation into its finances. The party is struggling to find an auditor to replace Johnston Carmichael which resigned last September, unknown to many senior party figures,.
Of course, had the party leadership election gone Ms Forbes’ way then most of these would have been her issues to fight – assuming she would not have challenged the UK Government on the gender reform legislation.
However, there are issues of concern which are entirely of Mr Yousaf’s making – a gung-ho approach to Holyrood-Westminster relations that will only weaken calls for agreement on a new referendum, plans to impose yet more income tax hikes on higher earners, and his hypocritical decision to attend the Coronation after reaffirming his republicanism.
Ms Forbes may have adopted a more softly-softly and pragmatic approach to Holyrood’s relationship with the UK Government, and her background as Finance Secretary, and her willingness to back new technologies give her an advantage on economic matters, though there were those who felt she fell short on fully understanding the needs of business, and it was noted that she was among the most guilty when it came to blaming Westminster for all Scotland’s problems.
It has to be said that throughout her period as Finance Secretary her engagement with the business media was pretty poor. When Wendy Alexander was Enterprise minister she regularly spoke directly to business journalists, and held weekly briefings with the Sunday business press. This two-way communication fed into policy. None of Ms Alexander’s successors has made much of an attempt to burst through the Holyrood bubble of political correspondents who feed off personality gossip and back-stabbing.
Whether or not a re-invigorated Ms Forbes makes another tilt at the leadership depends not only on how Mr Yousaf deals with the immediate challenges but also on his ability to devise a programme that offers something new, imaginative and realistic. He won’t “end” poverty, and the odds are stacked heavily against him achieving independence any time soon. He has thrown a bit of money around and visited oil workers in the north east, but these are little more than top-ups and goodwill gestures. He badly needs some quick fixes – such as reform of business rates, or new help for first time home buyers – that will show he is an achiever, and not a dreamer.
During his election campaign he slipped in a promise to increase the budget for the Scottish National Investment Bank from £2 billion over ten years to £10bn. That is quite a commitment, and on a scale that many believe would help the bank make a real difference.
Last week the bank ended its long search for a new chief executive. It represented a fresh start after a lot of negativity clouded its first few months. It was also an opportunity for Mr Yousaf to confirm his £10bn plan and to grab some positive headlines this weekend, not least in the business press.
But we’ve heard nothing further about the pledge and Mr Yousaf was nowhere to be seen or heard when the new CEO was announced.
Instead, he spent the weekend in Dundee campaigning, you guessed it, for independence and attacking “heartless” Westminster policies for bringing Scotland down. More grievance, more fantasy politics. Oh dear.
Terry Murden held senior positions at The Sunday Times, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and The Northern Echo and is now editor of Daily Business