Humza Yousaf could lead the SNP to the opposition benches after party's 16 year dominance

3 May 2023, 19:46

Gina Davidson reflects on 16 years of SNP government
Gina Davidson reflects on 16 years of SNP government. Picture: LBC

By Will Taylor

Today is the 16th anniversary of the SNP's ascension to government. It also marks five weeks of Humza Yousaf's First Ministership of Scotland.

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What a decade and a half it's been for Scotland; what a 35 days for him.

For much of those 16 years, particularly under Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Government's "mission" - independence aside - was to tackle poverty.

In particular, she wanted to see the poverty-related attainment gap in Scottish schools eradicated. Yet today, Humza Yousaf convened an anti-poverty summit - an admission that all those years have done next to nothing to move the dial on this issue, and that is despite some ground-breaking policies like the Scottish Child Payment, putting extra cash in the pockets of the poorest families.

He said that he had been forced to listen to some home truths by those in attendance, but much of what they will have had to say, he's heard before.

Indeed, he'll have even read it in a Scottish Government report which was published on the day of Nicola Sturgeon's final First Minister's Questions, which showed that poverty rates have remained static for more than a decade.

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It is this lack of progress on policy issues which will colour Humza Yousaf's time as First Minister more than anything else in the eyes of the public.

His rival for the top job Kate Forbes made it clear in her campaign that her government had failed to deliver - be it on ferries, on closing the attainment gap, on building enough new housing, on broadband, on devolving powers to councils, on mental health waiting lists, on A&E waiting lists, on drugs deaths… the list is not a short one.

A government which doesn't do what it says on the tin will eventually come a cropper, especially if it also fails to deliver on the big ticket item, in this case independence, something which Humza Yousaf has said needs a sustained majority of support before any new referendum. He's also not put a figure on what that might look like.

Of course, he's not had his troubles to seek since winning the job - and a new poll by Redfield & Wilton Strategies, out today, adds to them.

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For one, it finds the No vote 10 per cent ahead of Yes, 52% to 42% - although the don't knows sit at six per cent - if an independence referendum were to take place tomorrow.

Worse for the new First Minister is the polling which shows that it is Labour which is now the most favourably viewed party in Scotland, holding a net favourability rating of +12%, while the SNP now sits at +3%.

Voting intention for the General Election puts Labour within three percentage points of the SNP, at 32% compared to 35%. Compare that to the actual result in 2019 which had the SNP on 45% and Labour on 19%, and the turnaround will be deeply concerning for Humza Yousaf and his strategists. There will be many SNP MPs now very worried about their seats.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar believes the same concerns that are moving people towards his party in England - cost of living, the economy - are finally beginning to override the constitution in Scotland, particularly with the apparent acceptance of Humza Yousaf that another referendum is, for once, not just around the next corner, or over the next hill. But the same poll also shows that Keir Starmer is not particularly popular.

His net approval rating in Scotland has slid, now at +2%, down six points from the previous poll, though he is far ahead of Rishi Sunak.

It is perhaps unsurprising, given the chaos surrounding the SNP, that public confidence in the party is shifting.

Humza Yousaf's latest net approval rating also makes for grim reading for him, sitting at -17%, down ten points from last month. Any further and he'll match Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross on -21%.

Of course, all of this is one poll, and the SNP is still ahead, even if the margins have reduced drastically. But there are other polls which show the same trend, that the SNP is at its weakest point in 16 years.

That's a long time to be in government, but it may well be Humza Yousaf's fate that he will be the SNP leader which leads them to the opposition benches again - if he survives what could be the wipe out of around half his Westminster team at the next General Election and is in the hot seat come the next Holyrood election.

What could help of course is finally delivering on at least some of those policy headaches which are sitting in his in-tray.