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by Chris Marshall
08 May 2023
In a spin: It's early days, but the polls make grim reading for Humza Yousaf

In a spin: It's early days, but the polls make grim reading for Humza Yousaf

Humza Yousaf had served as first minister for just one week before his party began to spectacularly implode all around him. Just seven days separated his swearing-in at the Court of Session and the arrest of Peter Murrell, husband of Nicola Sturgeon and the man Yousaf had described weeks earlier as a “proven winner”.

Yet in truth, the writing had been on the wall long before Yousaf took up residency of Bute House and long before Murrell was taken in for questioning by detectives investigating the SNP’s finances before later being released without charge. The unravelling became obvious back in February with Sturgeon’s surprise resignation – it was at this point that the tightly coiled spring of the SNP operation began to publicly unwind, that the once well-oiled machine began to cough and splutter, that the wheels finally fell off. 

In the weeks that followed, Sturgeon’s long-time deputy and most trusted lieutenant John Swinney also announced his resignation as did her chief of staff, Liz Lloyd. Murrell fell on his sword in mid-March, resigning as party chief executive – a role he had held since 1999 – after it became clear the SNP had sought to cover up a 40 per cent fall in membership numbers. 

A party which appeared divided during the leadership debates is now a party in disarray, unable to get on with the business of government amid questions about motorhomes and burner phones. Far from the political juggernaut it had become, the SNP is beginning to resemble the early 2000s version of itself, a party which looked unlikely to ever be troubled by the business of government.

And yet with a general election still likely to be over a year away, the party has plenty of time to recover. While its recent travails are far from just a momentary blip, the SNP has held a commanding grip on Scottish politics for over a decade, one which will be difficult for its opponents to shake. It also remains the only vehicle for achieving a second independence referendum, admittedly a hope which looks particularly forlorn at this particular moment. 

Recent polling shows the SNP’s difficulties are definitely being noticed by voters, with Labour moving ahead on the list vote for the Scottish Parliament. Admittedly a Holyrood vote remains three years away and the SNP maintains its lead – reduced as it is – in the constituency vote, according to the survey carried out by Redfied and Wilton Strategies. Labour is now just three points behind when it comes to voting intentions for the general election, which is likely to take place in the second half of next year, and the party is now the most favourably viewed in Scotland with a rating of +12 per cent, compared with –4 per cent for the SNP.

Perhaps more worrying for the SNP is some of the polling around Yousaf, whose approval rating is -17 per cent, down 10 points in a month. Just 22 per cent approve of his overall performance as first minister, compared with 39 per cent who disapprove. In contrast, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has an approval rating of +3 per cent, although even that is down seven points in a month. The SNP’s Angus Robertson once memorably spoke of the importance “the Big Mo (momentum)” – well, it’s quite clearly no longer with this party.  

 “The SNP is in trouble – the mess that Humza Yousaf has inherited is immense,” says James Mitchell, professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh. “Even the most talented leader would struggle with that, and I’m not sure he’s the most talented leader.”

Despite Yousaf’s attempts to get on the front foot in his first few weeks in post, Mitchell says the new first minister is a politician “schooled in a politics of presentation and spin” with little else to fall back on.

“Nicola Sturgeon’s major asset, I would argue her only asset, was her communications skills. She was useless as a first minister. I think people are waking up to the fact that behind the communications façade, there really wasn’t much there. [Yousaf] is Sturgeon mark two but without her communication skills.”

One of Yousaf’s most immediate concerns – the need to find new auditors to sign off the party’s accounts – has now been resolved with the appointment of Manchester-based AMS Accountants Group. But the first minister doesn’t have his problems to seek.

While much of the focus since he took office has been on the SNP’s internal finances, that is just one part of the damaging inheritance left for Yousaf by his predecessor. The new first minister has already confirmed the Scottish Government will go to court in a bid to prevent its Westminster counterpart blocking the highly controversial Gender Recognition Reform Bill, while the introduction of the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) has been delayed. 

But it is yet another government policy, Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), that is threatening to do the most immediate damage. In a highly charged debate in Holyrood last week, one-time leadership candidate and ex-finance secretary Kate Forbes quoted a song by the band Skipinnish which compares HPMAs to the Clearances. 

Also speaking in that debate was Fergus Ewing, a former SNP minister, who has become an outspoken critic of the government not only on HPMAs but also the deposit return scheme. 

“This will haunt the Scottish Government this issue – this will not go away,” he said. He then tore up a Scottish Government consultation document on the issue which he described as a “notice of execution”.

There is genuine anger in coastal communities over the plans, which are part of the Bute House Agreement between the SNP and Scottish Greens and which seek to address biodiversity loss by putting strict limits on fishing, aquaculture and construction. Net zero secretary Mairi McAllan has said HPMAs will not be “imposed” on communities against their wishes but amid considerable disquiet – not least from the SNP’s own backbenchers – the policy threatens to underscore what many supporters see as an urban, central belt bias within the party hierarchy and a growing aloofness from the rural communities the SNP once claimed to know so well. 

In a vote held in the Scottish Parliament the following day, Ewing, Forbes and Alasdair Allan (another former minister) voted against an amendment put forward by McAllan on HPMAs, while three further SNP MSPs,  including former leadership contender Ash Regan, abstained.

Amid rumours that Yousaf’s opponents within the party are already sharpening their knives, the prospect of an unruly backbench is not something his predecessor as FM ever had to deal with. If nothing else, it should help improve both the quality of debate and the scrutiny of the government, something which was noticeably lacking during the nodding-dog era under Sturgeon. 

The problem for the SNP’s political opponents will be taking advantage of the mess the party now finds itself in. Labour continues to enjoy a healthy lead over the Tories at Westminster in the opinion polls, but in his commitment to make Brexit work, his tough stance on immigration, and his jettisoning of a promise to scrap university tuition fees for students in England, Keir Starmer is making it hard for too many SNP voters to love him. 

“Nicola Sturgeon’s major asset, I would argue her only asset, was her communications skills. She was useless as a first minister. I think people are waking up to the fact that behind the communications façade, there really wasn’t much there. [Yousaf] is Sturgeon mark two but without her communication skills. (James Mitchell)

The job then falls to Scottish leader Sarwar to articulate a vision for his party north of the border, to put some clear blue water between himself and Starmer, and shake off the “branch office” jibe so often levelled at his party by the nationalists.  

“If [Sarwar] really wants to win, he needs to do more than just let the SNP lose,” says Mitchell. “If he wants to inspire, he really needs to articulate policies.”

Polling carried out by Ipsos ahead of voting in last week’s local elections in England appeared to show Labour in strong shape, with the party on 49 per cent (down two points) compared with 26 per cent (up one point) for the Tories. That’s despite a somewhat lacklustre showing for Starmer, who is only marginally more popular with voters than Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. 

Despite the Tories' poor showing in the local elections, projections based on the result put Labour short of an overall Commons majority come the next general election, with the SNP already eyeing up the roll of kingmaker, promising to “drag Labour to the left”. The party is expected to ask for the power to hold another independence referendum to be devolved to Holyrood in return for its support. 

But those who have turned their backs on Labour in Scotland in recent years may be tempted to once more return to the fold to help kick the Tories out of Downing Street, especially with a referendum on independence looking like a distant dream.

For while Yousaf said on the leadership campaign trail that Scotland could leave the UK within five years, he has been remarkably reticent on the issue since taking office, save a cursory – although quickly rebuffed – attempt to secure a Section 30 order from Sunak on a trip to London last month. Last week’s Redfield and Wilton Strategies poll found 52 per cent of Scots would vote No in a referendum, compared to 42 per cent for Yes (with six per cent undecided).

“I suspect the message Labour will use at the next election will be almost an old SNP one, which is lend me your vote,” says Mitchell. “Okay, you support independence, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon and we’ve got the chance to get rid of the Tories. Getting rid of the Tories is a fundamentally key issue for many people who previously voted Labour and now vote SNP.”

Things currently look bleak for Yousaf and his party but if the spectacular fall in the stock of both Sturgeon and the SNP tell us anything, it’s that a lot can change in just a few short weeks. The new first minister will be hoping for a similar reversal in the months that lie ahead. 

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