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Scottish National Party’s Humza Yousaf inherits ‘huge mess’ – POLITICO

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LONDON – Good luck to Humza Yousaf – the next Scottish Prime Minister will need it.

Narrowly elected leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party Monday (SNP), Yousaf faces the monumental task of bringing together a party that has been torn apart by a bitter leadership race.

And he must now step into the shoes of Nicola Sturgeon, who took the SNP to new heights but left his successor with a formidable entry plateau, including major strategic questions about the future of the fight for the independence of Scotland from the United Kingdom.

“Where there are divisions to heal, we need to do it quickly,” Yousaf said on Monday. Her slim margin of victory over her nearest rival, Kate Forbes, lays bare the magnitude of this task.

“I think it’s been a lot more robust than people initially anticipated,” a former Scottish government adviser said of the competition, with an understatement. Others were more direct.

“There’s a huge mess out there and we have to clean it up,” the party’s acting chief executive, Mike Russell, told the BBC, following a mid-term row that led Sturgeon’s own husband , Peter Murrell, to step down as CEO.

Messy contest, messy party

Nearly two decades of uninterrupted top-down party rule by Sturgeon and his predecessor – mentor-turned-nemesis Alex Salmond – came to an abrupt end when Sturgeon announced his shock resignation in February.

Major differences were already bubbling beneath the surface of Sturgeon’s watch – and some of her critics say she passed on a toxic legacy to her successor.

The outgoing SNP leader faced widespread internal opposition to both her strategy to achieve Scottish independence and, to a lesser extent, her government’s plan to facilitate legal gender reassignment. The party split on both issues, with politicians once loyal to Sturgeon beginning to openly express their displeasure.

“[Sturgeon] clearly allowed all that toxin to fester, and now all the pus has burst all over Scotland’s body politic,” said Independence columnist Neil Mackay, who writes for the Herald newspaper.

Indeed, Yousaf now faces the prospect of leading a party that only narrowly voted for him – and how close the result is is likely to come under scrutiny as Forbes at one point definitely sought the tally.

The finance secretary and devout Christian faced a flurry of questions about her socially conservative views in the early days of the contest, including admitting that she would have voted against legalizing same-sex marriage.


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A string of early supporters soon announced they were withdrawing their support, and some suspected Forbes would pull out just days after the contest began.

Instead, she came out fighting – and it was Yousaf’s record as a minister in her sights.

In the first televised debate of the campaign, Forbes set his record in terms that had an accusing activist her of having “used opposition punch lines against a colleague”. Such public splits are particularly important in a party once famous for its ability to keep big disagreements behind closed doors.

“When you were transport minister, the trains were never on time,” Forbes told Yousaf during this debate. “When you were Minister of Justice, the police were at their wit’s end. And now, as Minister of Health, we have record wait times. What makes you think you can do a better job as prime minister? »

The rival Conservative and Labor parties could hardly hope for a better attack on whoever will now lead the SNP.

When asked if the party had been in a worse position in recent history, a former SNP adviser said no. “But the accounts of our disappearance are greatly exaggerated,” they insisted.

File called into question

If the party is to prove that to be the case, however, Yousaf must begin to quickly overturn the public perception of the same government that Forbes openly ridiculed.

While Sturgeon has largely enjoyed positive approval ratings among the public throughout his time in government – and leaves office with a net +8 approval rating, according to a Ipsos poll – the same cannot be said of the government she led.

The Ipsos poll found that on a number of policy issues – including health care, education and living standards – ‘more people think the Scottish government is doing a bad job than they think the Scottish government is doing a bad job. ‘he’s doing a good job,’ Rachel of the pollster. Ormston explained.

The government’s handling of the NHS – Yousaf’s current portfolio – is ‘particularly poorly rated’, she added, while most polls find Yousaf himself not popular with the electorate Scottish in the broadest sense.

Some in the party also question whether he is up to it, given his struggle to avoid negative headlines in previous cabinet posts.

“No one – including his supporters – looks at Humza and says ‘there is our leader for the next 10 years’ or even that he will win independence,” said the same former SNP adviser. “Even the [SNP] the establishment probably sees it as a placeholder for someone better.

The narrowness of the SNP election result is likely to come under scrutiny as Kate Forbes at one point definitely sought the tally | Jeff J Mitchell/Getty images

Others, however, were more optimistic.

“Humza has a lot of work to do to bring the party together and deliver a capable government that people want to see,” a senior SNP MSP official said. “He will have to reach out and use all the talents available to build the best team. If it can show progress in public service delivery and the economy, the SNP can rise to Labour’s challenge.

Membership drop

Speaking in Edinburgh on Monday, Yousaf pledged to ‘lead the SNP in the interest of all party members, not just those who voted for me’ and to ‘lead Scotland in the interest of all our citizens”.

But as he tries to rally the troops, Yousaf also has to contend with a sharp drop in SNP membership.

Figures released by the party amid a bitter row which in itself cost the head of the SNP’s chief executive and its communications officer in the Scottish parliament show it has lost more than a third of its members over the course of of the past three years – falling from a height of around 125,000 in 2019 to 72,186 at last count.

Optimistic SNP supporters put the drop adrift, meaning members simply forgot to renew amid the pandemic and then the cost of living crisis. Others point to the party’s lack of progress towards its ultimate goal of gaining independence from the rest of the UK, its mixed record in government after more than 15 years in power. The low turnout in the leadership elections – only 70% of eligible members cast their ballots – will only add to doubt about whether the SNP remains a compelling force.

Yousaf becomes prime minister within days – and Scotland will soon find out if it’s sink or swim time for the party he leads.

“It has to be the most poisoned chalice of all poisoned chalices…it is a disaster in which even the best political operator would drown,” Mackay said.

Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.

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