UK Covid Inquiry and SNP's slump in polls leaves Humza Yousaf looking vulnerable – John McLellan

Former Finance Secretary Kate Forbes could be thinking about another leadership bid

Different times, very different circumstances, and two very different people. The Nicola Sturgeon of the now infamous video of her warning the SNP’s national executive committee in 2021 about leaks and the state of the party’s finances was in stark contrast to the shrunken figure before the Covid inquiry last week.

Virtually everything predicted came to pass and 2021’s aggressive snarl was replaced by tears of regret and excuses of linguistic sophistry. In the self-confessed bookworm’s personal thesaurus, “eliminated” is not a synonym for “eradicated”, “not retained” doesn’t mean “deleted” and “answering the substance” has replaced “economic with the actualite” as a euphemism for lying, and if anything, it diminished her further.

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Takes out small onion, I wrote here last week, and so it transpired, and although I didn’t quite go along with Scotland Secretary Alister Jack’s view that she could cry with one eye, in the end tears were all there was left. Having admitted in her resignation speech a year ago next week that she had become a divisive figure, Wednesday’s Lacrimosa was a requiem for an era in which the SNP leadership could ride out a litany of failure through force of personality.

With the SNP is trouble in the polls, Humza Yousaf will need luck on his side (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)With the SNP is trouble in the polls, Humza Yousaf will need luck on his side (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
With the SNP is trouble in the polls, Humza Yousaf will need luck on his side (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

With the best will in the world, force of personality is not an option open to her successor, and with the benefit of that NEC video it’s not difficult to imagine poor Humza Yousaf cowering from Ms Sturgeon’s wrath when as Health Secretary in December 2021 he tried to be helpful by presenting the Scottish Cabinet with a surprise offer of £100m for Covid business support from his budget.

Yousaf ‘winging it’

“I've never seen the FM this angry in all my Cabinets... for good reason," said ex-Finance Secretary Kate Forbes in an undeleted WhatsApp message revealed by the inquiry last week. Other messages don’t do Mr Yousaf any favours either, the banter with national clinical director Jason Leitch revealing a laddish jocularity which, given the gravity of the situation they faced, most casual observers would find inappropriate. "Winging it! And will get found out sooner rather than later,” said Mr Yousaf, even if landing the top job two years later suggests he’s been more lucky than prophetic.

It was probably lucky the Covid Inquiry drama meant the thinnest independence paper yet, “Culture in an independent Scotland”, promising little more than a Scottish BBC replacement (but working with the BBC), no doubt at vast public expense, and free international football on the telly, went by almost totally unnoticed when it appeared last Friday.

With Labour and the SNP neck-and-neck in the polls, a cull of SNP MPs at the general election is inevitable, and without the authority that allowed Ms Sturgeon to breeze past the slump at the 2017 vote, Mr Yousaf’s survival depends on the likelihood of a challenge and the quality of the challenger. But anyone unlucky enough to be watching last Thursday’s Question Time from Glasgow (mainly masochists, insomniacs, or those unable to reach for the remote) will have been disabused by the notion that Kate Forbes is the answer.

It wasn’t just her insufferably patronising Sunday School teacher tone, as if she pitied the audience for not being as clever as she, but the transparent unwillingness of another machine politician to give straight answers to any questions. If voters wanted someone to at least sound refreshingly honest after the events of the week, what they got was the same old deflection.

It looked like an attempt to stay on message in the event that her party is looking for a new leader after the election, and perhaps she had second thoughts about attacking her own side after her gloves-off assault on Mr Yousaf’s ministerial record during the leadership contest. But it just looked like the SNP trying to close ranks if not to defend, but certainly to dilute the criticism of the former leader’s record.

Forbes’ tax plan criticism

Avoiding open criticism was itself generous, given Ms Sturgeon’s backing for Mr Yousaf and the revelation that, at the height of the pandemic, Ms Forbes was not part of Ms Sturgeon’s tight inner circle where the real decisions were thrashed out. As Finance Secretary, she could hardly be described as a bit-part player, but it’s as if she was consulted on a need-to-know basis, despite the financial implications being as important as the impact on health and education. We now know she didn’t even know the so-called “Gold Command” existed for some time.

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Whether she’s preparing for a post-election opportunity or not, a constituency newsletter is expected later this week in which she will criticise the higher income tax burden introduced in the SNP’s December budget and call for more efforts to grow the economy. According to The Times newspaper, she will say, “continually increasing taxes is ultimately counterproductive over the long term, even if you agree with it ideologically, because it ultimately reduces public revenue”, and point to forecasts of a £118m reduction in tax revenue because people retire, cut their hours, leave the country or reorganise their tax liabilities. “That illustrates that we need to invest in people, in job creation, and in better wages. That way the tax take will increase,” she is expected to say.

However, a new Norstat poll (formerly Panelbase) found that 39 per cent of people back the SNP’s approach to income tax compared to 40 per cent opposed, and it’s a fair bet that there are more current SNP supporters in the 39 per cent as the party’s appeal has leant towards what were the old Labour, working-class, West of Scotland heartlands. With that and her socially conservative views, the chances of her being a unifying candidate who can reverse the party’s slide – the gap between SNP support and in-principle backing for independence is now nearly 20 points – are remote.

Even though the party still seems badly split, Hapless Humza might still have luck on his side. Different times, different job, but he’ll still be winging it.



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