Be careful what you wish for is a phrase coined for Humza Yousaf

9 February 2024, 17:55

Humza Yousaf's troubles continue to plague him in 2024.
Humza Yousaf's troubles continue to plague him in 2024. Picture: Alamy

By Gina Davidson

Not quite two months into the year and for Humza Yousaf it seems impossible to shake off the plague of problems which have beset him since becoming both SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland.

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The personable 38-year-old is sipping from a chalice, which if not entirely poisoned, must be leaving a distinctly bad taste in the mouth.

We are approaching the first anniversary of Nicola Sturgeon’s shock announcement that she was standing down, and you have to wonder how often since that day Yousaf has questioned his decision to throw his hat into the ring to replace her. I would venture very few despite the litany of problems he has faced from the very start and that brutal leadership battle, which involved the loss of the SNP’s head of press and then its chief executive over lying to media about membership numbers.

Yes he is resilient, most politicians are, and he knows how privileged his position is, but there is something else about Yousaf which seems to allow the troubles which are heaped upon him, roll right off. He is not an unserious individual, he seems to care deeply about tackling poverty for instance, but despite all that has happened he at least gives the appearance of wearing it all very lightly. Perhaps it is his faith which helps - or the demands of dealing with a teenager and a young child at home; bathtime with a four year old can always puts things into perspective.

But let’s refresh the memory: since he became leader there has been a panic to find new auditors after the party’s previous long-standing firm quit, Police Scotland’s Operation Branchform raided SNP HQ and Nicola Sturgeon’s house, then there was the arrest - and release without charge - of his predecessor, her husband and former SNP CEO Peter Murrell, and his party’s former treasurer Colin Beattie, not forgetting Yousaf’s own slips when answering questions about the police inquiry: no I’m not leading a criminal organisation, no the SNP doesn’t use burner phones… well it depends on your definition of course…

On the policy front he dumped some of those which were championed by Sturgeon - a ban on alcohol advertising, and an expansion of Highly Protected Marine Areas - but those he attempted to cling on to ended in defeat at the hands of the UK government: the deposit return scheme and gender recognition reform (the latter as a result of losing a costly court battle) now gathering dust. In Holyrood he has seen a number of backbenchers coalesce around his leadership rival Kate Forbes, mostly in their distaste for the SNP’s agreement with the Scottish Greens, while veteran MP Angus Brendan MacNeil was kicked out the party, and the suspension of rebel MSP Fergus Ewing is still not resolved. Ash Regan, who also ran for the leadership, quit the party and now sits as Alba’s sole MSP.

Independence, which should be the one objective round which all in the SNP can rally, has proved divisive too, at least when it comes to how the party intends to achieve it. The policy passed at SNP conference is a dog’s breakfast which has left no-one satisfied, or even clear about how it might work in practice.

He lost the first election his party contested under his leadership - the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election. Scottish Labour won somewhat emphatically, and indeed polls suggest there is now very little between the two parties. Oh, and in the passing he also lost an MP to the Conservatives when Lisa Cameron crossed the floor.

On top of all of that, the war in Gaza saw troubles on the personal front with his in-laws trapped as Israeli forces drew near. At least they were home in time for Christmas - but his decision to shake hands and chat with Turkish president Erdogan at Cop28 about a ceasefire, without a Foreign Office official present, sparked fury in the UK government but also in some sections of his own party given Turkey’s alleged human rights abuses against Kurds in the country.

And then there was the Michael Matheson £11k ipad roaming charges bill scandal. Under huge pressure to sack his health secretary, he staked his own integrity on being loyal to his friend, and refused. That has, of course, just come back to bite him.

A new year was supposed to mean a reset; to stop being buffeted by the political illwinds, to set the agenda. He launched his party’s general election campaign in January - even though a date has not yet been set - but any hope that the run of bad news might come to a halt was short-lived.

In the last few weeks we have seen his pandemic WhatsApp messages, including one where he admitted to “winging it” as Health Secretary, poured over at the UK Covid inquiry - and his being bounced into announcing an external review of the use of Whatsapp by ministers given so many messages were deleted by others. He was also forced into falling into line with the UK government on new regulations around XL Bully dogs - again something he had previously resisted - after it became clear the animals were being rehomed from England in Scotland.

Then his brother-in-law appeared in court on serious drugs charges, and was also questioned over an incident where a man fell from a Dundee tenement flat window.

And finally the inevitable happened this week with the resignation of Michael Matheson ahead of what is expected to be a pretty damning report of his actions around that £11k ipad bill. His going forced a Cabinet reshuffle, and again raised questions of Humza Yousaf’s political judgement. And all the while Operation Branchform rumbles along in the background, poised like a mallet-wielding Jack-in-the-Box, waiting to spring at the precise moment when he may feel he can relax into something slightly less than uncomfortable.

In short, it has been a truly horrendous 11 months. Things can only get better another party’s old theme tune might suggest. But will they?

The coming general election will be the toughest the SNP has faced in around a decade. He could lose swathes of his MPs and in so doing the SNP would no longer be able to claim to be the third largest party in Westminster. If Labour wins the election he will also face an opponent of a very different kind in Number 10 - one whom he may not be able to paint as quite so pantomime villain as he has Sunak, though much of that depends, of course, on just what Labour does. One thing for sure is that a Labour government won’t bring his desire for independence or a referendum any closer.

He’s also now pinning his hopes on his friend Neil Gray to start turning around the awful waiting times in the NHS, that Mairi McAllan will be able to build bridges with Scotland’s business community which has been vocal in its opposition to much of the SNP’s domestic agenda in recent times, and that by having a dedicated Cabinet Secretary dealing with transport, at least one of those damned ferries gets off the slipway this year.

There are a lot of pitfalls ahead. The Matheson story for one is not yet complete, and depending on what the parliamentary report finds it could prove utterly damning for Yousaf’s judgement and make the rumblings from the backbenches grow louder. So would major losses at the General Election. And of course Operation Branchform has the potential to see the whole SNP project come off the rails.

This cannot be what he envisioned the day Nicola Sturgeon called him to alert him to her impending resignation. Be careful what you wish for could be a phrased coined for Humza Yousaf.