Humza Yousaf's blowing up of his Green pact fatally buried its shrapnel in the heart of his leadership

29 April 2024, 19:36 | Updated: 3 May 2024, 15:17

Humza Yousaf and his wife Nadia leave Bute House after he announced his resignation as SNP leader and First Minister.
Humza Yousaf and his wife Nadia leave Bute House after he announced his resignation as SNP leader and First Minister. Picture: Alamy

By Gina Davidson

It took just 397 days between Humza Yousaf becoming First Minister of Scotland to Humza Yousaf announcing his decision to quit. Or in political measurement terms, he was at the top of the tree for almost eight Liz Trusses.

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There are few comparisons you can make between him and the short-lived PM, but both were guilty of allowing a certain arrogance in their own abilities to overtake their political sense.

In a hushed Bute House he stood and told Scotland that he was going and to expect a third First Minister in less than 18 months. He seemed to wear the announcement with some ease (perhaps relief) and with some humility, admitting he had been hoist by his own petard.

The bomb he exploded under the Scottish Greens last week had fatally buried its shrapnel in the heart of his leadership of the SNP. He accepted there was no-one else to blame. Emotions only getting the best of him when he thanked his wife Nadia for her support, and he left without taking questions from the press.

Was it inevitable that things would end quite so quickly? Certainly the bruising leadership battle he won last year in the wake of Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation, was never going to mean an easy start. The divisions which were ripped open in the SNP were always going to take a long time to heal - and he just didn’t ever seem to have the appropriate salve.

He was an FM who lurched from one crisis to another; many of them admittedly outwith his control, but which left him looking like he was being buffeted from pillar to post. A man directed by events rather than shaping them.

Would any other leader have been able to handle things better? Things such as Police Scotland’s Operation Branchform raid on SNP HQ and Nicola Sturgeon’s house? 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? The more recent re-arrest of Murrell and the charge of embezzlement? What does a leader do when the people who helped him rise fall from grace so dramatically? Some would say cut them dead - but that is not how Humza Yousaf reacts. He knows better.

He did move away from some of Sturgeon’s more controversial policies - a proposed 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.

He had to deal with veteran MP Angus Brendan MacNeil being kicked out the party, the suspension of rebel MSP Fergus Ewing, the crossing of the floor of Dr Lisa Cameron to the Tories in Westminster, and of course the defection of Ash Regan who now sits as Alba’s sole MSP. He lost the first election his party contested under his leadership - the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election - and the polls have continued to see the SNP slide.

On top of all of that, the war in Gaza saw troubles on the personal front with his in-laws trapped there while Israeli bombs began to fall ever closer. 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 and also in some sections of his own party.

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, come back to bite him. As did his flippant remarks on Whatsapp during the pandemic as the Covid inquiry embarrassingly revealed.

It has been a lot.

In the last few months 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. His government was rocked by the public response to the enactment of the Hate Crime Act and he allowed himself to be drawn into public spat with JK Rowling. Peter Murrell was charged. Then key climate targets were ditched, and the Scottish Government agreed with clinicians when they stopped prescribing puberty blockers and hormones to transgender teens.

The latter two enraged the Greens and sparked their membership’s desire for a rethink on the agreement they had with the SNP to provide a stable pro-independence majority in Holyrood. Perhaps again Yousaf’s hubris acted before sense kicked in - and he decided he would make that decision rather than the Greens. He was backed in that by advisers, by his Westminster leader Stephen Flynn, and no doubt by many others in the SNP.

But it backfired. The Greens have toppled the First Minister. So now we await an SNP NEC meeting and the timetable for the election of a new leader. In the meantime Humza Yousaf holds the reins of the Scottish Government, in power for the time being, but powerless to do anything except watch his party move on without him.