Euan McColm: Humza Yousaf's support for Nicola Sturgeon now looks like weakness

First Minister’s decision to stand by his predecessor and patron was noble but naive

It is striking just how much of Humza Yousaf’s time since becoming First Minster has been swallowed up dealing with the legacy of his predecessor.

When Nicola Sturgeon – who announced her plan to step down as SNP leader last February – let it be known Yousaf was her favourite to take over, she gave his faltering campaign just enough of a boost to see him crawl to victory. To say his prize turned out to be a poisoned chalice would be a considerable understatement.

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Within weeks of taking office, last March, officers from Police Scotland raided the Glasgow home Sturgeon shares with her husband, former SNP chief executive Peter Murrell. To date, Murrell, Sturgeon, and former party treasurer, Colin Beattie MSP, have all been arrested and questioned as suspects.

At a time when Yousaf should have been setting out his vision for the country, he was dragged into a most inconvenient – and damaging – firefight. His decision – noble if naive – was to stand by his former leader (and patron).

Yousaf has since been stout in his praise of Sturgeon and Murrell, even as scandal threatens to overwhelm them.

There was, for example, a section of Yousaf’s party conference speech last October in which he spoke at length about Sturgeon’s achievements then encouraged an ovation. And he was at it again, last week, cheering Sturgeon over her leadership during the Covid pandemic.

While Yousaf was waxing lyrical about his predecessor, her reputation was taking yet another hammering.

Sturgeon’s failure to keep a promise made in August 2021 that she would make available all communications – including WhatsApp messages – to any future Covid inquiry is a scandal from which she is finding it impossible to disentangle herself.

At a hearing of the UK Covid Inquiry in Edinburgh last week, Sturgeon sought to reassure that she had not deleted anything relevant and that she acted in line with Scottish Government policy at all times. Neither of these lines is strong.

For one thing, it is not – and cannot be – for political figures whose actions are being investigated to act as gatekeepers over information. It is not for Sturgeon to decide which of her messages may or may not be relevant. That’s the job of the inquiry.

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The defence that she acted in line with government guidelines at all times is no more robust.

In fact, talk of guidelines is irrelevant. Sturgeon was asked a simple and straightforward question: Would she make her WhatsApps available? To which she gave the unequivocal answer: Yes.

There was no caveat in the then First Minister’s response, no mention of Scottish Government guidelines, and – shamefully – no mention of the fact, since revealed, that even as she was giving this promise, Sturgeon knew a number of her messages had already been deleted.

We all heard Nicola Sturgeon make a promise and we have all seen her break it. These are the facts.

It’s baffling that Yousaf wishes to lash himself so tightly to Sturgeon’s mast. His relentless praise of her doesn’t improve her reputation, it tarnishes his.

One politician who wouldn’t be making the same mistake, right now, is Nicola Sturgeon.

The former First Minister is a most unsentimental politician who, throughout her time as SNP leader, had no compunction about cutting adrift allies who became troublesome.

If SNP leader Sturgeon saw trust in her party plummet because a colleague had broken a promise to the Covid Inquiry, that colleague would have swiftly become a non-person.

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Were their roles reversed, Sturgeon would have thrown Yousaf under a bus. As it is, Yousaf has thrown himself beneath its wheels.

When he took office last March, Yousaf had weak poll ratings and limited political capital. How foolish of him to spend so much of what little he has defending the indefensible.

It’s not solely in the case of Nicola Sturgeon that Humza Yousaf has been reckless in his defence of a colleague. Publication of the report of an investigation into Health Secretary Michael Matheson’s expenses is imminent.

You will recall how it emerged last year that Matheson had claimed £11,000 expenses to cover the cost of roaming date used during a family holiday in Morocco. At first, Matheson was adamant all costs had been run up while he was carrying out constituency work on his parliament-provided iPad. He later admitted the charges had been run up by his teenage sons, who used the device to stream football matches.

Just as is the case with Sturgeon and her WhatsApps, the Matheson scandal cuts through. We don’t need an investigation to tell us Matheson misled the country when he told journalists no family members had used his iPad, despite knowing of his sons’ actions.

Yousaf’s defence of Matheson and Sturgeon, both of whose actions are clearly understood, does not strengthen them, it weakens him.

Yousaf should have sacked Matheson last year when it became clear he’d lied about who’d used his iPad. Instead, he threw himself in front of his Health Secretary, taking blow after blow for him.

Nicola Sturgeon – once the SNP’s most powerful figure – is now a political liability. Yousaf should feel comfortable criticising her where criticism is due, as it most surely is in the case of her broken promise to all of us who want answers about the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic.

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Neither Matheson nor Sturgeon is now a great asset to the SNP. Humza Yousaf has no great use for either of them.

We all know Michael Matheson misled the country about his expenses and that Nicola Sturgeon broke her promise to supply information to the Covid Inquiry. Why Humza Yousaf continues to shield these MSPs as they drain his government of credibility is a mystery.



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