This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

One of the unkinder remarks about Humza Yousaf’s Programme for Government on Tuesday came from Douglas Ross.

Not famed for his wit, the Scottish Tory leader nevertheless scored a palpable hit when he branded the First Minister “a poor Nicola Sturgeon tribute act”.

There was nothing new in the man or his ideas, just more of the same, Mr Ross sighed.

In Mr Yousaf’s defence, it is hard for the Government to make a sudden swerve mid-term.

In fact, two and a half years on from the Holyrood election, you would expect it to be rather unexciting, getting on with delivering what it promised voters in 2021.

Mr Yousaf would doubtless have liked to be flashier in his first PfG, but he was elected on the same SNP manifesto as his predecessor, and so he must push on with what she started.

If he were to crowd Holyrood’s legislative timetable with his own schemes, other promises would go on the back burner to make way, leading to another kind of criticism.

The promises made to the Scottish Greens in the Bute House Agreement further restricted the First Minister’s room for manoeuvre. 

Those looking for a rash of new ideas will have to wait until the next Holyrood election campaign.

However, Mr Yousaf is still free to distinguish himself from Ms Sturgeon in other ways. 

The former first minister was a master of not quite answering the question. 

A lawyer before she was a politician, her legal training ensured a caveat was invariably slipped into the mix, creating a sliver of wriggle room in case it was needed later. 

You might have thought she had made a firm commitment to something or other, but a close reading of the text would reveal a telltale ‘probably’ or ‘perhaps’ letting her off the hook.

Under extreme pressure, Ms Sturgeon was also prone to bouts of amnesia, failing to recall whatever was most likely to embarrass her. 

When he replaced her in the spring, Mr Yousaf was different: open, accessible, unvarnished. 

That was good for journalists, of course. But it was also good for Holyrood life in general.

Alas, on Wednesday, Mr Yousaf appeared on BBC Radio Scotland to talk about his PfG and offered responses of the utmost weaseliness.

The Herald:

Asked why the SNP had ended 2022 more than £800,000 in the red, he said it was “hardly a surprise that in an election year political parties end up in deficit”.

However this skated over the fact the elections were for Scotland’s councils and that parties, including the SNP, spend far less on those than on parliamentary elections.

The SNP spent £760,000 campaigning in 2022, but £1.65m in 2021 and £1.56m in 2019, the years of the Holyrood and Westminster elections respectively.

Yet despite the SNP’s outlay being way down, its finances were worse than in those years.

The reason for the scale of the 2022 deficit, the SNP’s second worst on record, was a slump in membership numbers and fees and a long-term donations drought. 

Mr Yousaf also misled by omission when asked why the Government had rolled back the extension of free school meals for P6 and P7 pupils.  

“We haven’t rolled back,” he said. “That’s incorrect to say so.”

Reminded it was supposed to happen in 2022, but was now slated for 2026, he said: “No. If you remember the manifesto we stood on, that is not what we committed to. We committed to introducing P6 and P7 universal free school meals by the end of the parliamentary term.”

UnspunCan Humza Yousaf’s Programme for Government quell his critics and bring unity to SNP?

The manifesto doesn’t supply a date, although before 2026 is obviously implied.

However the Government did supply dates – only to keep changing them when it couldn't deliver its policy on time. 

The PfG of 2021, published six months after the SNP manifesto, declared: “From August 2022 we will fund free lunches for all primary school pupils.” It didn't happen.

In his budget statement last December, then finance secretary John Swinney told Parliament there would be “universal provision in primary schools from August 2024”. 

That didn't happen either.

Now the date has slipped again, but instead of admitting it, Mr Yousaf referred back to the one document in this farce that lacks a date, the SNP manifesto. 

He later denied it was a shabby move, but that just added another shabby denial to his tally.

If he wants to avoid being a Sturgeon tribute act, he should drop the tricks and come clean.   

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