Jawad Iqbal Jawad Iqbal

Humza Yousaf isn’t cut out to be SNP leader

Humza Yousaf (Credit: Getty images)

It is now exactly a year since Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s First Minister, rose to the pinnacle of Scottish politics. Pretty much everything that has happened since entitles those who doubted his leadership skills, political judgment and basic competence to mutter ‘I told you so’. Even his most diehard supporters within the SNP must be starting to wonder what his leadership is all about.

The warning signs were there from the start. Yousaf quickly emerged as the favourite to replace Nicola Sturgeon following her shock resignation last February. He simply wanted the job more than anyone else, and billed himself as the continuity candidate. He came under sustained attack from Kate Forbes, his main rival in the leadership contest, whose slogan was ‘continuity won’t cut it’ – a line of attack that has turned out to be rather prescient. The narrowness of his eventual victory over Forbes amounted to a distinctly lukewarm endorsement by his own party: a damaging blow to his authority from which he has never really recovered.  

There is a palpable sense that his party is already looking beyond him to the question of who comes next

The ceiling appears to have been falling in ever since, with almost everything that could have gone wrong, going wrong. Yousaf made the rookie political mistake of not distancing himself from the somewhat beleaguered Sturgeon, with the SNP engulfed in a police investigation into party funding and finances that continues to this day. Yousaf chose instead to declare Sturgeon ‘the most impressive politician’ in Europe. The political wisdom of this stance is far from obvious.

The First Minister demonstrated political immaturity when he failed to find a place in government for Forbes. This made him look petty and insecure, as well as making the task of uniting the party behind him that much harder. On taking office, he ignored wiser heads in deciding to push ahead with a legal challenge to the UK government’s veto of the controversial Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, which would have allowed people to change their legal gender more quickly and reduce the age threshold to 16. That legal battle – which cost an estimated £230,000 at a time when Scotland’s finances are squeezed – ended in a humiliating defeat in December, when the Court of Session, Scotland’s supreme civil court, ruled the veto lawful.

The unforced political errors have kept on coming. The First Minister showed misplaced loyalty in defending his then health secretary, Michael Matheson, who claimed £11,000 on expenses for iPad roaming charges whilst on holiday, which he later admitted were largely run up by his sons watching football. Matheson was eventually forced to quit last month, after an official investigation found him guilty of breaches of the code of conduct. Yousaf defended him to the last, insisting ‘decent people make mistakes’. The foolish decision to stand by Matheson called his judgment into question even further.

Just as troubling is his current determination to push through Scotland’s unworkable and widely derided Hate Crime Act which – fittingly enough – is due to come into effect on April Fools’ day. The legislation has been widely as poorly drafted and illiberal, posing real dangers to free speech. His recent jibe about making Scotland ‘Tory free’ is simply an embarrassment, unworthy of the office he holds.

Yousaf’s biggest problem is that he isn’t really cut out to be a leader: he lacks the personality and charisma to inspire the confidence of his colleagues or the wider public. He always manages to give the impression of winging it from one self-inflicted crisis to the next.

These shortcomings are nothing new. When he served as transport secretary, the trains were always late. Hospital waiting times soared during his time as health secretary. He was a miserable failure as justice secretary. Why should things have turned out differently now that he is top dog?

Yousaf is destined to be no more than a footnote in political history

Just as damning during these last 12 months is the absence of anything that might pass for a wider political vision. Yousaf has no real answers to any of Scotland’s problems, whether it is the failings in health and education, or fixing the big hole in public finances. His ‘anti-poverty, pro-growth’ programme for government, announced in September, was immediately dismissed by opposition leaders as a rehash of existing commitments. Even though he has been in office for only a year there is a palpable sense that his party is already looking beyond him to the question of who comes next. In the meantime, all that is on offer is drift and purposelessness.

Yousaf is destined to be no more than a footnote in political history, celebrated for being Scotland’s first ever Muslim and ethnic minority first minister. He will leave no other trace.