The Sunday Telegraph

Why the imploding SNP is facing electoral disaster in Scotland

All eyes are on the difficulti­es faced by the Tories – but there could well be a second spectacula­r collapse north of the border, writes Tom Harris


Last week was more difficult than usual for Humza Yousaf. Amid his burgeoning political woes, his familial relationsh­ips were dragged into the media glare.

News outlets breathless­ly reported that the First Minister’s brother-in-law, Ramsay El-Nakla, had been charged with abduction and extortion after a man fell from a block of flats and later died.

Yousaf is not the first politician to be embarrasse­d by coverage of the troubles faced by a relative. The SNP leader is accountabl­e only for his own actions. Neverthele­ss, the publicity would have been an unwelcome complicati­on in a week when an opinion poll seemed to signal the doom of his party’s independen­ce project, and the tensions within the Yes movement reached breaking point in a very public manner.

While the Tories’ woes have been headline news for months, they are not the only party staring down the barrel of electoral disaster.

The SNP is facing a crisis of its own. A toxic mix of poor political decisions, increasing scrutiny of its record in government, a constituti­onal debate that is leading the party into a blind alley, threats to its coalition with the Greens and growing discontent with Yousaf ’s leadership, threaten to make the 10th anniversar­y of the independen­ce referendum a cause for recriminat­ion rather than celebratio­n.

The last time a YouGov survey revealed a Labour lead in Scotland was in the immediate aftermath of the referendum in September 2014. But last week, in its latest snapshot, Labour had overtaken the SNP in popularity. A general election that accurately reflected this poll would leave Labour in Scotland with 28 seats – up from its current tally of one – and 10 seats ahead of the SNP, which won 48 at the 2019 general election.

The poll arrived on news desks a day after an unseemly – and extremely rare – public fracas between the SNP and their Green partners. In a newspaper interview, Yousaf had suggested that a vote for the Greens in Scotland at the forthcomin­g general election would be “wasted”, given that last time round they failed to secure their deposits in a single seat.

The Greens were not about to take this lying down. One of their most prominent MSPs, Ross Greer, pointedly asserted that every vote for his party would send “the strongest possible message to Westminste­r that Scotland demands urgent action on the climate and nature emergencie­s. The world is burning around us and sadly all other parties have proven unwilling to step up when needed to protect our common future.”

That may sound like the usual politickin­g one would expect to hear from all parties as the election draws nearer. But in Scotland, such a public row between the two main nationalis­t parties points to an unpreceden­ted fracturing of an informal political agreement that has been maintained for more than a decade.

It even puts pressure on the rather more formal agreement that brought the Scottish Greens into government in the first place.

Alliance under stress

The Greens have benefited at successive Scottish Parliament elections – which are run on a hybrid system of first-past-the-post and the d’Hondt proportion­al list system – by appealing to SNP supporters to give their party the second vote. With the SNP performing well at constituen­cy level, they are unlikely to gain more than a few seats on the party lists that are intended to balance representa­tion at Holyrood. The Greens’ enthusiasm for independen­ce has in the past made them a comfortabl­e alternativ­e for nationalis­t voters.

But that alliance was showing signs of stress even before this latest unedifying war of words. Senior SNP politician­s – particular­ly the veteran ex-minister Fergus Ewing, a scion of the Ewing dynasty – have consistent­ly demanded the end of an agreement that ceded junior ministers’ posts to the Greens’ co-leaders, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater. He renewed his attack this week, stating: “The co-operation agreement with the Greens stipulates that its cornerston­e is ‘mutual trust and good faith’. It’s clear from recent blistering attacks by Green MSPs … upon the SNP Government that this trust has broken down and good faith, if it ever existed, is no longer.”

The formal agreement with the Greens has indeed been at the root of some – though by no means all – of the SNP’s difficulti­es in government. Part of the so-called Bute House Agreement signed by former first minister Nicola Sturgeon agreed to progress one of the policies closest to the Greens’ hearts – self-identifica­tion for trans people. But despite enjoying the support, of Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the Gender Recognitio­n Reform Bill became the subject of much anger, division and controvers­y as it made its way through Holyrood, with women’s groups raising concerns about the impact of the legislatio­n on their hard-won rights to same-sex spaces and sports.

Ultimately, the Bill was never granted Royal Assent after the UK Government took an unpreceden­ted decision to veto it. Public support for Scottish Secretary Alister Jack’s decision took many at Holyrood by surprise – and within the SNP group, anger turned towards the Greens.

Similarly, the new Hate Crime and Public Disorder (Scotland) Act, which was passed three years ago and came into force last week, has subjected all the parties, but particular­ly the SNP government, to some of the worst publicity its has received.

Police Scotland promised to investigat­e every complaint made to it under the Act, just a few weeks after announcing that in order to save scarce resources certain other crimes, including some involving theft and criminal damage, would not be investigat­ed.

The Act was piloted through the Scottish Parliament by Yousaf himself when he was justice secretary, so he will find it difficult to evade responsibi­lity if – as early indication­s are suggesting – the legislatio­n proves little more than an incentive for activists to make vexatious complaints.

SNP out of its depth

Meanwhile, whatever its ultimate effect, the Act merely confirms that when the SNP seeks to address political issues other than independen­ce itself, it quickly finds itself directionl­ess and out of depth.

Nationalis­t activists are growing ever more impatient at the lack of progress the administra­tion has made towards securing a second independen­ce referendum, despite its working majority at Holyrood, a large SNP majority of Scottish MPs at Westminste­r and a Brexit that was opposed by a clear majority of Scots.

Yet in nearly nine years as first minister, Sturgeon’s most significan­t constituti­onal achievemen­t was eliciting from the Supreme Court a definitive ruling that the Scottish Parliament has no legal authority to hold a second referendum without Westminste­r’s approval.

Sturgeon’s resignatio­n as first minister came a few weeks later – and a few days before she and her husband, the SNP’s former chief executive, Peter Murrell, were arrested (and subsequent­ly released without charge after denying wrongdoing) by detectives as part of Operation Branchform, the investigat­ion into the whereabout­s of £600,000 of donations to the party that were intended to fund a second independen­ce referendum.

That investigat­ion trundles on, casting a cloud over the party and enabling unhelpful speculatio­n to undermine activists’ morale. Meanwhile, Yousaf, who presented himself as the “continuity candidate” when he put himself forward to succeed his former boss, has grappled – so far unsuccessf­ully – to succeed where she failed, and come up with a plan to secure the only thing his party members are interested in: another independen­ce referendum.

His proposal, to claim a mandate to open independen­ce negotiatio­ns if his party wins more seats at the general election than any other, is generally ridiculed and has failed to convince even his own supporters. If the party were to win a plurality of Scottish seats, it could end up demanding the right to negotiatio­ns even if it suffered a net loss of seats since 2019.

The likelihood that no incoming UK Government, whether Labour or Conservati­ve, would bow to the SNP’s demand for negotiatio­ns adds to the pressure on Yousaf.

Perhaps if the SNP had made a competent job of governing on other matters, its inability to move the dial on independen­ce may have been forgiven by its supporters. Unfortunat­ely for Yousaf, the Scottish Government’s report card does little to offer the First Minister comfort.

Education target dropped

In devolved areas for which Yousaf and his ministers have full responsibi­lity, the results are not encouragin­g. One in seven Scots languishes on an NHS waiting list. In education, where Sturgeon once asked to be judged on her Government’s success in closing the attainment gap between richer and poorer pupils, the gulf has widened and the target has been dropped.

An education system that was once feted as the best in the developed world (not least by Scots themselves) has fallen upon hard times under the stewardshi­p of the SNP.

The latest survey by the Programme for Internatio­nal Student Assessment (Pisa) published in December made for worrying reading for Scottish parents. Results in science and maths continue to decline: the drop in achievemen­t since 2006 is the equivalent of missing 21 months of science lessons and more than 18 months of maths.

Further and higher education in Scotland has its own challenges. The much-vaunted policy of offering “free” university tuition to Scottish students – a policy inherited from the previous Labour/Liberal Democrat administra­tion – has had the unintended consequenc­e of making it harder for pupils from poorer background­s to get a place at university, thanks to the cap on the number of “funded” places available.

The SNP has come under particular criticism from all sides on the issue of preventabl­e deaths caused by illegal drug use. The number of fatalities continues to outstrip not only every nation of the UK but every country in Europe.

Attempts by SNP ministers to blame UK-wide drug legislatio­n have persuaded few, since England, Wales and Northern Ireland operate under the same laws but suffer far fewer deaths per capita.

And then there’s the ongoing catastroph­e of the Government’s attempt to commission and build two ferries to serve Scotland’s island communitie­s.

The launch last week of the Glen Rosa from Port Glasgow shipyard should have offered Yousaf and his ministeria­l colleagues a much-needed respite from their other difficulti­es.

But, instead, it is likely only to highlight the ongoing problems the yard has had in fulfilling the contract. The Glen Rosa itself is far from ready to go into service some 18 months hence. In the meantime, the original £97m budget for the two vessels is likely to be exceeded by a factor of four.

Accused of pandering to a woke minority, of seeking to restrict or silence freedom of speech through its Hate Crime Act, responsibl­e for overseeing a drastic loss of faith in the NHS in Scotland, offering little or no hope of improvemen­t in Scotland’s schools, overseeing unpreceden­ted levels of misery for the families of drug users, and demonstrat­ing an inability to procure vital infrastruc­ture for isolated communitie­s, the SNP may have hoped for better circumstan­ces in which to approach a general election.

Yet whichever date Rishi Sunak chooses for the election, it’s unlikely that things will improve for Yousaf between now and then. Operation Branchform may or may not conclude in that period, with consequenc­es no one can predict.

More importantl­y, from a political point of view, the memory of a referendum that happened 10 years

ago, and the divisions that campaign fostered, have at last started to fade. With the prospects of a second referendum also fast disappeari­ng, at least in the medium term, Scots are finally starting to consider the other issues likely to be front and centre of debate when the country goes to the polls.

Labour offer is attractive

Labour’s offer in Scotland – to be part of the change that will sweep the hated Tories from government – is proving an attractive one, even to those who deserted the party after the independen­ce referendum and who hold out hope that the Union can be ended.

For Scottish Labour, these voters are key. Attracting back into the fold those former supporters who lost faith in a party that they, their parents and their grandparen­ts had supported for decades would utterly transform the political landscape in Scotland, almost as much as the SNP transforme­d it in 2015.

But there are two major obstacles to achieving that goal. The first is how to attract “soft” independen­ce supporters to back a party that opposes independen­ce. The second is how to hold on to that support while shaping a manifesto that appeals, on a UK-wide basis, to former Conservati­ve voters in England.

So far, the polls suggest that Sir Keir Starmer has made significan­t progress in both strategies. The problem for the SNP is that it recognises the desire among most of its own supporters to see the back of Sunak and his party. And so far it has failed to find a convincing counter-argument to the growing perception that only a vote for Scottish Labour can bring that about.

Yousaf has, in recent weeks, sought to play down the threat from Labour and convince his audience that his party’s main opponents are the Conservati­ves.

This is true in a handful of seats, particular­ly in the north east of Scotland. But the general election will be fought and won in Scotland’s west central belt, the same area that once elected scores of Labour MPs and where Labour is mounting its fiercest challenge.

The second of Yousaf ’s tactics is to try to claim that Labour, in its efforts to appeal to middle England, is no different to the Conservati­ves and therefore unworthy of Scottish voters’ support. Again, the polls would suggest that this argument, too, is falling on deaf ears.

Thirdly, Yousaf has suggested that sending a large contingent of nationalis­t MPs to Westminste­r will help to keep Labour “honest”. As Starmer is going to win anyway, the argument goes, there is no need to bloat his ranks with more, unnecessar­y Scottish Labour MPs.

All of this will inevitably be exploited by the Conservati­ves, who hope to hold on to, and perhaps even increase, their representa­tion of seven Scottish MPs. In the 2015 campaign, the party exploited the fears of English voters that a minority government led by Ed Miliband would be in Alex Salmond’s pocket. Expect the same arguments to be made this year, and expect Labour to deny vehemently any prospect that the nationalis­ts may leverage concession­s on the constituti­onal issue

Yousaf ’s argument is, in fact, self-defeating and contradict­ory: SNP MPs can exert influence on Labour only if it fails to win a majority on its own. That being the case, the argument for voting Labour in Scotland to give Starmer the majority he needs is even more persuasive.

National mood important

But such details are of less importance than the wider national mood, depending on whether that mood is optimistic or pessimisti­c. An awful lot needs to go right for the SNP between now and the start of the official short campaign.

Yousaf ’s problem is that there is nothing in the “grid” of political events that is likely to shift the political narrative in Scotland. The troubled coalition agreement with the Greens will continue, so Green ministers will continue to announce unpopular initiative­s and SNP MSPs will continue to challenge them. The latest of these was a ban on wood-burning stoves in new-build homes in Scotland, which has provided Kate Forbes, the former finance secretary and Yousaf ’s chief rival in last year’s leadership contest, with an opportunit­y to rally discontent­ed party members and parliament­arians.

Forbes has repeatedly refused to concede that she has abandoned her ambitions to lead the party. She lost in 2023 by 52pc to 48pc and would be a favourite to succeed Yousaf were he to step aside or be forced out.

Whether that happens will depend on the general election result and, perhaps, the 2026 Scottish Parliament elections.

There are those who suggest that even if the SNP loses badly this year, Yousaf may be given a chance to redeem himself by leading the party into the crucial Holyrood contest.

But there are probably more who believe that while the loss of a few dozen MPs would be tolerable for the party, the prize of Bute House, the official residence of the First Minister, is too great to be risked by sending a wounded politician into battle for them.

And if, in the aftermath of the loss of the general election in Scotland – and with it the evaporatio­n of the SNP’s hopes of independen­ce negotiatio­ns, Yousaf were persuaded to resign, Kate Forbes presents a very different prospect for the nationalis­t cause.

As a devout Christian and member of the Free Presbyteri­an Church, she is socially conservati­ve and does not subscribe to the trans ideology supported by Sturgeon and Yousaf, having stated that “a rapist cannot be a woman” and defining a trans woman as “a biological man who identifies as a woman”.

Such views seem not to have dented her popularity among the activists who would decide a leadership contest, but her accession to the job of first minister would almost certainly mean the departure of the Scottish Greens from the Government, given their unswerving support for trans ideology.

That would leave the SNP administra­tion without a working majority at Holyrood for at least the last 18 months or so of this parliament, but it might offer her party a degree of intellectu­al cohesion that it currently lacks.

Forbes is thought to favour pursuing a longer term strategy of achieving independen­ce by gradually winning over the Scottish electorate to the cause, even if that takes far longer than most activists have the patience to endure.

Provided Starmer can maintain his party’s double-digit opinion poll lead until the long-awaited arrival of the formal general election campaign, and provided it appears that he could be the mechanism by which Scots could help to remove the Conservati­ves from Downing Street, Yousaf ’s worst fears would be realised.

Labour’s unelectabi­lity in the last decade has helped make the case for the SNP, even if Scots continue to harbour a degree of scepticism about independen­ce.

The last time the SNP fought an electoral contest at UK level against an electable Labour Party, in 2005, it won six of Scotland’s 59 seats. In 2024, the SNP leader needs to come up with a persuasive argument as to why Scots should reject the chance to change the Government at UK level and instead support a party whose electoral triumphs have had no discernibl­e negative impact on the Conservati­ves’ ability to govern.

The SNP could be about to learn the hard political lesson: that parties that represent the political establishm­ent, and oppose the changes that voters want, will find it very difficult indeed to get the public to listen to them.

‘SNP MPs will be able to exert influence on Labour only if the party fails to win a majority on its own’

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 ?? ?? Humza Yousaf has failed to restore the SNP’s fortunes since taking over from Nicola Sturgeon
Humza Yousaf has failed to restore the SNP’s fortunes since taking over from Nicola Sturgeon

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