Scotland Leader Yousaf Quits After His Power Play Backfires

(Bloomberg) -- Humza Yousaf resigned as Scotland’s first minister and Scottish National Party leader after just over a year in office, paying the price for a gamble that backfired with ramifications for UK politics in an election year.

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“Repairing our relationship across the political divide can only be done with someone else at the helm,” Yousaf, who replaced long-time leader Nicola Sturgeon in March 2023, told reporters at his official residence in Edinburgh on Monday. He said he would stay on in the role until his successor is selected.

His decision last week to pull the SNP out of its power-sharing agreement with the Scottish Greens triggered days of political chaos that left the 39-year-old clinging to his position. Two opposition-led votes loomed — one on his position as first minister and one on the government as a whole — that would likely have forced him from office if they were put to a ballot of lawmakers.

“It’s the classic situation of someone who’s weak, trying to look strong, and then just confirming their weakness,” said Steven Fielding, Emeritus Professor at the University of Nottingham.

So Yousaf jumped before he was pushed. But a move designed to give the SNP a chance to rebuild under a new first minister could yet trigger snap elections for the first time since the Edinburgh parliament was re-established in 1999. The SNP now has 28 days to agree on a new leader and try to get another party — likely the Greens — to give it enough lawmakers to win a parliamentary vote.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for the SNP, which had depicted itself as a beacon of stable leadership within the UK during the chaos of Brexit and the pandemic. Now, the party is heading into a UK election campaign rudderless and mired in a scandal over its finances.

The party is the third-largest in the UK and by far the biggest in Scotland, even though it is short of an overall majority in the Edinburgh legislature. In an at times emotional appearance, Yousaf urged the opposition parties to cooperate on choosing a new first minister and not to “oppose for opposition’s sake.”

“The only people who suffer as a result of such an impasse are the very public that we seek to serve,” he said.

Though Yousaf did not name his preferred successor as either SNP leader or first minister, some candidates seen as being likely front-runners include:

  • Kate Forbes, 34, former finance secretary

  • John Swinney, 60, former deputy first minister

  • Jenny Gilruth, 39, education secretary

  • Neil Gray, 38, health secretary

  • Mairi McAllan, 31, energy secretary

  • Stephen Flynn, 35, Westminster leader

Still, despite the SNP’s determination to continue as a minority government, there’s no guarantee that opposition lawmakers will let them do so and eschew the chance to reshape the composition of the devolved parliament.

The Greens, until last week Yousaf’s partners in government, are seen as the most likely to prop up the SNP again — though it’s not clear who could forge a compromise over policies that led to months of tensions. Swinney, Sturgeon’s former deputy, is seen as possible on an interim basis, but with Scottish elections not scheduled until 2026, that may not be a long-term solution.

Swinney told reporters he is “giving very careful consideration” to running. “It’s important that there is an approach taken which ensures that we work carefully with all political parties in the Scottish parliament,” he said in London.

The key question is whether the Greens, and other opposition parties, want an election now. Much will depend on how they see their prospects. SNP dominance, a feature of Scottish politics for well over a decade, is no longer a reality and a recent survey put Labour — led in Scotland by Anas Sarwar — ahead.

Labour is pushing for a confidence vote on the SNP government rather than on Yousaf’s leadership. It is likely to push ahead with that, and to try to persuade other lawmakers to coalesce around the idea of a snap election.

The calculation for Labour is whether to try to capitalize and prove it has the momentum in Scotland ahead of a UK-wide vote expected in the autumn. The counter argument would be to let the SNP leadership contest play out, assuming that it would bolster a sense of turmoil that would turn more voters to Labour.

Yousaf’s resignation couldn’t come at a worse time for the SNP, with the party’s support slipping after a series of policy missteps and a police investigation into its finances that’s led to Sturgeon’s husband being charged with embezzlement.

The opposite is true for Labour, and that has implications for UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party, too. Labour’s capitulation in Scotland over the last decade coincided with an era of SNP dominance in Scotland, while paving the way for the UK Tories to hold power in London since 2010.

It means Labour’s resurgence in Scotland is critical to leader Keir Starmer’s chances of ousting Sunak from Downing Street in the UK general election.

Yousaf had struggled to take the initiative ever since Sturgeon unexpectedly resigned as Scotland’s longest-serving leader. Styling himself as the so-called “continuity candidate” helped him beat off rivals, but it also meant he inherited a series of unpopular policies and the controversial agreement with the Greens.

Tensions between them had been bubbling for months on issues from gender recognition to rent control, and came to a head after the government watered down environmental goals. Yousaf acted amid signs the Greens themselves were preparing to pull out of the deal, which was reached in 2021 when the SNP fell one seat short of a majority during the last Scottish election.

Yousaf’s decision to end it, though, ultimately triggered his demise.

--With assistance from Isabella Ward.

(Updates with Yousaf comment in sixth paragraph, potential candidates in eighth.)

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