SNP: Humza Yousaf endures bruising start to his time in office after 100 days of turmoil
Humza Yousaf said he felt like the "luckiest man in the world" when he won the bruising SNP leadership contest at the end of March. But just days later, the new First Minister found himself at the head of a party in turmoil.
His first 100 days in office have been dominated by a crisis not of his making. The arrest of Nicola Sturgeon – who was later released without charge – as part of the ongoing police investigation into the SNP’s finances was just the latest twist in a jaw-dropping political drama that exploded into the open in early April.
Her husband Peter Murrell, the former chief executive of the SNP, was arrested the week after Mr Yousaf was sworn in. A fortnight later, Colin Beattie, the party’s ex-treasurer, was also arrested. Both men were released without charge.
Mr Yousaf, who turned 38 on April 7 and has spent pretty much his entire adult life in politics, must have wondered if his luck had well and truly run out. But those around the MSP for Glasgow Pollok insist he doesn’t shy away from difficulties, and prefers to approach things head-on.
The day after Mr Murrell’s arrest, the new First Minister invited journalists to Bute House, his official residence in Edinburgh, for what was unofficially billed as a “fireside chat”. Here, with journalists settled on sofas arranged in a rough circle, he took questions for almost half an hour before doing a round of broadcast interviews.
It was a clear signal Mr Yousaf wanted to do things differently. His willingness to submit himself to scrutiny should be commended, but it hasn’t always been helpful to his party. Headlines featuring the First Minister denying the SNP is operating criminally, or that his party is “in cahoots” with the police, raised eyebrows across Holyrood.
Mr Yousaf’s attempts to get on the front foot have been repeatedly thwarted by the scandal engulfing his party. Interviews have often focused on the police investigation and its fallout. The SNP’s struggle to find auditors only added to the sense of a party in deep trouble.
The First Minister’s first major policy speech, on April 18, was overshadowed by the arrest of Mr Beattie that same morning.
And there are problems elsewhere, too. Fergus Ewing, the veteran SNP MSP and former minister, has proved a potent critic of government policy on a range of issues. He recently defied party bosses to back a motion of no confidence in Lorna Slater, the Green minister, which had been tabled by the Tories. Mr Ewing was widely expected to face disciplinary action, but the death of his mother, Winnie, a nationalist icon, complicated matters.
Meanwhile, in Westminster, six SNP MPs have announced their intention to stand down at the next election, including prominent names such as Ian Blackford and Mhairi Black. Angus MacNeil, the MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, was this week suspended following a bust-up with the party’s chief whip, Brendan O'Hara.
During the SNP leadership election, Mr Yousaf was seen as the continuity candidate – the one closest to Ms Sturgeon and her legacy. He has remained loyal to the former first minister even in the aftermath of recent events.
But he has also ripped up chunks of Ms Sturgeon’s policy platform. Controversial proposals to introduce further restrictions on alcohol advertising were rapidly taken “back to the drawing board”, while plans to designate at least 10 per cent of Scotland’s seas as highly protected marine areas – which would have seen fishing and other activities banned – have been scrapped in their current form.
On the key issue of independence, Mr Yousaf has also moved away from his predecessor’s strategy. Ms Sturgeon had wanted to fight the next general election as a “de-facto” referendum by declaring victory if the SNP secured more than 50 per cent of the vote in Scotland.
Mr Yousaf has instead opted for a confusing mishmash that ultimately boils down to pushing for a second independence referendum if the SNP wins the most seats. He couched this underwhelming approach in impressive-sounding language that allowed activists to take from his speech whatever they wanted.
Elsewhere, the First Minister has moved to reset the Scottish Government’s relationship with business groups and local authority leaders. Budget cuts have eaten into council finances in recent years, and the amount of money “ring-fenced” for centralised spending priorities has been a running sore. A new agreement with Cosla, the council umbrella body, which was signed last week, could mark a significant turning point.
Some question what Mr Yousaf stands for. The First Minister will get a chance to better define this when he sets out his Programme for Government – his legislative plans for the year ahead – in September. Public finances are tight and difficult decisions will need to be made. As a former health secretary, he will be painfully aware of the problems facing the NHS.
Mr Yousaf leads a party that has taken a hit in the polls amid a period of unprecedented turmoil. But he is undoubtedly a skilled communicator, and his approach to governing is said to be more inclusive than Ms Sturgeon’s.
In a press release marking his first 100 days, the SNP pointed to actions including tripling the fuel insecurity fund to £30 million, earmarking £15m of funding to deliver free after-school and holiday clubs across Scotland, and awarding more than £15m to a range of projects supporting people affected by substance misuse.
“This is only the beginning, and I am determined that my Government will continue to deliver for all of the people of Scotland,” Mr Yousaf said in a statement earlier this month. If he is to make his mark and escape the shadow of his predecessor, he’ll hope the end remains a long way off.
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