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What's Humza Yousaf going to do about long serving MSP and SNP backbench rebel Fergus Ewing?

A casual glance at some newspaper headlines at the end of last month suggested that Mr Ewing, who has become quite a thorn in the First Minister's side, has escaped any sanction after breaking discipline rules back in June when he voted against the government in a no confidence motion on Lorna Slater.

But conversations going on around Holyrood suggest that is far from being the case with Mr Ewing's disciplinary breach still very much a "live" matter in the SNP group.

Indeed, speaking to the BBC last week Mr Ewing appeared to recognise a decision was still outstanding.

Asked if he faced sanctions for voting to sack Ms Slater (who survived the motion put down by the Conservatives), the MSP for Inverness and Nairn said that despite some of his colleagues saying he was "toast" he was still "waiting for that toasting", adding: "The future fate of Fergus Ewing is not what's important".

It is understood party chiefs decided to put the matter on hold after Mr Ewing's mother, the legendary Winnie Ewing, the former SNP MP, MEP, MSP and party president, passed away on June 21, just a day after the confidence vote on Ms Slater.

Understandably the SNP's hierarchy felt at the time it was best to act compassionately and that the case of Mr Ewing should be left until after MSPs returned from their summer break, allowing some time to pass.

Indeed in the same press reports, which suggested Mr Ewing would not be losing the SNP whip, Mr Yousaf says group discipline matters would be dealt with after recess.

Views differ about what action should be taken. SNP MSPs who are sympathetic to the Greens' policy outlook tend to be more in favour of imposing a sanction against Mr Ewing, including even the removal of the whip for a period, than those less in step with the smaller party's programme.

They see it as only fair that Mr Ewing be disciplined and that party rules should apply across the board to all in the group. Why should one MSP be allowed to get his way when everyone else has to knuckle down, they ask.

They also believe that not imposing a sanction on Mr Ewing would set a precedent and store up greater problems for party unity.

By escaping punishment once, Mr Ewing could reasonably expect to do so again, while not taking action against him could cause other SNP MSPs to vote against the government on some future issue, increasing the risks of a full-blown rebellion.

The Herald:

The counterargument among others is that suspending Mr Ewing from the party would expose the differences in the SNP for all to see and lead to lingering resentment among allies of Mr Ewing. His suspension would of course be weaponised mercilessly by Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems in the run up to the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election and the general election, looming next year.

There's also the knotty issue of Nicola Sturgeon.

Ms Sturgeon and former party treasurer Colin Beattie both kept the whip following their arrests on separate occasions earlier this year as part of the long running police investigation into SNP's finances. The two MSPs were released without charge pending further inquiries, as was Peter Murrell, Ms Sturgeon's husband, and the SNP's former chief executive who in April was the first of the trio to be arrested.

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After her release from custody, the former first minister insisted she was "innocent of any wrongdoing". Mr Yousaf went on to defend the party's decision not to suspend her saying: "She has been released without charge and I think it is so important that presumption of innocence is upheld".

Suspending Mr Ewing for voting in line with his own personal belief that Ms Slater had done a poor job as the minister in charge of the deposit return scheme, while allowing two MSPs at the centre of a major police probe to keep the whip, would inevitably lead to eyebrows being raised over the party of government's priorities. Again opposition parties would use the scenario to their advantage.

So Mr Yousaf undoubtedly faces a very tricky dilemma when deciding what to do regarding Mr Ewing when Holyrood returns next month.

And it's also very clear that either course of action – sanction or no sanction – will have major consequences, with neither looking particularly appealing.

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