Michael Settle: Yousaf’s biggest challenge is keeping SNP together

Nicola Sturgeon’s departure underscored how her dominant presence had largely held the SNP’s “broad church” together; so remarkable indeed that some nationalists probably had no idea how broad it really was when social conservative Kate Forbes nearly snatched the crown from social liberal Humza Yousaf.

From the warm comfort of the sidelines, it was refreshing to see the candidates engaging in political debates during the leadership contest; often passionate.

All of this showed once again that the carefully crafted appearance of the group’s calm unity was in fact a brittle facade that could easily have broken without the supreme leader’s skillful touch.

After his narrow 52-48 victory on Monday, Mr. Yousaf boldly declared how wonderfully unity had been restored. “We’re no longer Team Humza, Ash, or Kate; We are a team.”

But some of his colleagues didn’t see it that way. Political wounds can take a lifetime to heal.

From Ash Regan’s priceless expressions of contempt to the defeated and despondent Ms Forbes telling her new party leader “where to put it” – allegedly – when offered a demotion, the SNP didn’t quite have the appearance of unity and harmony.

Given the close outcome, with all but half of party members wanting the Highland MSP to call the shots, one would have thought Mr Yousaf would have thought it wiser to ensure she was in the tent rather than threaten to become a magnet for dissatisfaction in the short to medium term things are not going well for newcomers to FM.

The ever-helpful Alex Neil, former Cabinet Secretary and Forbes contributor, couldn’t hide his displeasure, describing the Rural Affairs Briefing’s offer made to her as “an insult and not a real attempt at unity”.

Yesterday Fergus Ewing, another ex-minister-turned-rebel, called for the end of the power-sharing deal between the Scottish Government and its Green buddies, branding the latter “wine bar pseudo-intellectuals”.

Read more from Michael Settle: A true baptism of fire awaits Scotland’s new First Minister tomorrow

Unveiling its newly designed cabinet, the FM deadpan insisted that there “couldn’t be more unity” in the SNP. Really?

In a clear attempt to shore up the base, Mr Yousaf has taken a defiant stance on the constitutional issue, expressing certainty that “we will be the generation to bring independence to Scotland”.

But in his brief chat with Rishi Sunak, when he mentioned his desire for Indyref2, there was the inevitable backlash.

Undeterred, one of Mr Yousaf’s more conspicuous appointments was that of Jamie Hepburn as Minister for Independence.

Naturally, this provoked an angry reaction from Scottish Conservatives, who fired a letter of protest at John-Paul Marks, Scotland’s top civil servant. Donald Cameron, the party’s constitution spokesman, claimed it was “an inappropriate use of taxpayers’ money” as the Scottish Government was unable to hold another vote on Scotland’s future.

But I suspect Mr Yousaf is happy that a political nerve has been pinched and believes that if the Tories complain about something, it must be the right decision.

Perhaps more worrying for the SNP chief will be the prospect of a by-election in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, which now seems likely given Margaret Ferrier’s proposed 30-day Commons ban for recklessly breaking Covid rules.

The independent MP who lost the SNP whip and was sentenced to 270 hours of community service after pleading guilty to the violation has a majority of 5,230. Due to the parliamentary process, it can take several months for an election to take place; much to the relief of Mr. Yousaf, no doubt.

But if it does, expect an almighty clash as it could prove to be the new SNP leader’s first election test, and Labor’s Sir Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar will pour huge resources into the once Labor-held constituency, to gain momentum for the federal election in 2024.

A new poll released yesterday – the first since Glasgow Pollok’s MSP took over MSP – actually suggested things were moving towards Labor in Scotland.

The Savanta snapshot of 1,000 adults since February showed the SNP in Westminster voting intentions down three to 39%, while Labor is up one to 33% and the Tories are up two to 19%.

Read more by Michael Settle: The words cloud, land and cuckoo come to mind when it comes to Indy

Since June 2022, the gap has narrowed five consecutive times, with the SNP’s lead falling 15 points from 21 to just six, one of the smallest gaps between the SNP and the second-place party since the 2014 referendum. Messrs Starmer and Sarwar will be amazed at the direction of travel.

It is predicted that if these numbers were repeated in the general election the SNP would lose 18 seats, 45 to 27, and Labor would take 17, one to 18, with the Tories staying on six seats and the Lib Dems gaining five one.

Polling results also showed Labor closing the gap with the SNP on Holyrood’s voting intentions.

While the comrades will be buoyed by these numbers, complacency remains their greatest enemy.

Mr Yousaf, meanwhile, has to grapple with the tigers of the NHS waiting lists, the deposit return system and the gender recognition reform bill.

As the heat of the general election battle mounts, party leaders will be desperate to spread unity within the ranks to maximize their chances at the ballot box.

Survival instincts will kick in, of course, when MPs are desperate to hold onto their seats and are willing to help maintain at least a semblance of party unity. Yesterday Sir Keir insisted he was leading a ‘united’ Labor Party after the leadership banned Jeremy Corbyn from running for election.

However, keeping track of political disagreements and personality differences is always a tricky business. But the political reality will always reveal itself sooner or later. Thank God.

https://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/viewpoint/23428647.michael-settle-yousafs-main-challenge-keeping-snp-united/?ref=rss Michael Settle: Yousaf’s biggest challenge is keeping SNP together

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