You could begin to feel sorry for Humza Yousaf. The First Minister may have secured the job he so desperately wanted but the weeks since he succeeded Nicola Sturgeon have been relentlessly miserable. As a police investigation into the SNP’s finances continues, the party stumbles from crisis to crisis.
Unable to get ahead of events, Yousaf seems woefully out of his depth; every interview is speckled with “did he just say that?” moments. And party unity is a thing of the past. So Yousaf could very much do without a by-election caused by the downfall of a scandal-stricken former SNP MP.
The failure of Margaret Ferrier, the idiot for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, to overturn a 30-day suspension from the House of Commons for breaking Covid laws and travelling between Glasgow and London while infected with the virus, makes a by-election all but inevitable. Even if Ferrier – who was suspended by the SNP when her actions became public knowledge in 2020 – continues to reject calls for her resignation, a recall petition is certain to get the signatures of the ten per cent of local voters necessary to trigger a vote.
All parties have selected candidates for the seat and leaders have spent much of their recent time in the constituency. The game has been on for some time. Much of the talk, so far, has been about a by-election as the first big test of Humza Yousaf. Has he got the leadership chops to fend off disaster or will one of the first milestones of his fledgling leadership be a humiliating defeat?
The odds would seem stacked against Yousaf. Support for his party has fallen, his own approval ratings are in the minus-double figures, and the uncontrollable narrative of the police investigation means he has no idea if and when a new scandal might explode. But I wonder if Yousaf is the politician with most to lose.
Labour has held the seat in the past – most recently from 2017-19 – and the party’s recent polling numbers (the SNP has dropped more than ten points to 34, while Labour has soared past the Tories to hit 31) mean it’s eminently winnable. The circumstances of the by-election could scarcely be better for Labour. The enforced – and entirely ignominious – departure of an SNP MP convicted of culpable and reckless conduct writes the majority of Labour’s attack lines.
However, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar does not yet have this one in the bag. If he fails to secure that victory, his mission to start winning again in Scotland will have taken quite the hit.
What, really, are the consequences for Yousaf if the SNP loses? He gets to keep being First Minister and the next general election is more than a year off. And, anyway, everyone expected the nats to lose. Defeat in this by-election would be little more than a flesh wound.
If Labour loses, it would be a disaster for Sarwar. If he can’t lead Labour to victory in this seat, then he’ll have a real problem. Sarwar’s story of Scots helping remove the Conservative government by uniting behind Labour will fall apart. Sure, Humza Yousaf could do without this by-election but the politician with most to lose is Anas Sarwar.