The SNP's difficulties will "get worse" under Humza Yousaf's "weak leadership", according to a prominent academic expert on the party.

James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, commented ahead of the first anniversary of Nicola Sturgeon announcing her resignation as First Minister and SNP leader on February 15 last year.

The party was hit by a wave of tumultuous events in the weeks after her decision to stand down including a bitter leadership contest and the ramping up of a police investigation into party finances.

Ms Sturgeon, her husband Peter Murrell, the former chief executive of the SNP, as well as the party's then treasurer Colin Beattie were all arrested last year, and released without charge.

READ MORE: Can Yousaf calm the SNP storm a year on from Sturgeon exit?

The defeat in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election in October and a series of opinion polls have suggested the SNP has lost support to Labour with the latter overtaking the Mr Yousaf's party, according to several surveys conducted in the last few weeks.

The Herald: First Minister Humza Yousaf launching the SNP's General Election campaign todayFirst Minister Humza Yousaf launches the SNP's general election campaign in January. Photo Gordon Terris/The Herald.

A survey by Redfield & Wilton on Westminster voting intentions, published last Wednesday, found that 34% of Scots would vote for Labour compared with 33% for SNP. The polling of 1,000 people from February 3 to 4. Meanwhile, polls suggest support for independence is around 50%.

Professor Mitchell, pictured below, spoke out after Michael Matheson resigned last Thursday as health secretary following a three month controversy over iPad expenses.

The Herald:

The development prompted fresh turmoil around the government which has been hit in recent weeks by accusations over secrecy following the deletion of Whatsapp messages relating to its handling of the pandemic as well as controversies over budget cuts, and a decision to freeze council tax next year.

Mr Matheson was succeeded as health secretary by Neil Gray as the First Minister carried out a mini reshuffle of his ministerial team on Thursday. In his resignation letter Mr Matheson warned of a need for 'major reform' in the NHS.

"The belated resignation exemplifies weak leadership from Humza Yousaf.  This has been allowed to drag on with a lame duck Health Minster at a time when, as he states in the resignation letter, there is a need for ‘major reform’ in the NHS," said Professor Mitchell.

READ MORE: James Mitchell: Rutherglen defeat will 'embolden' rebels

"He is right that major reform is required but hasn’t outlined what this involved, explained why it has not been happening and only stated this as he leaves office." 

Professor Mitchell added: "While the last year has been difficult for the SNP, there is reason to believe that matters will get worse this year. 

"Support for independence has helped the SNP, protecting it from negative perceptions following the police investigations and poor performance in office.  

READ MORE: Operation Branchform: Complainer demands action on probe

"But it is striking that Labour is now attracting support from those who say they support independence.  These voters are likely to be weaker in their support for independence than those who will continue to vote SNP.  Momentum is against the SNP with weak leadership, internal divisions spilling out across a range of areas and little sign of a clear strategy in government or achieving independence."

Professor Mitchell went on to say that "a large part of the problem" for the SNP is that it "grossly oversold itself and over-promised during the Sturgeon years".  

He said: "The SNP carried on campaigning rather than turn its attention to governing and undermined the reputation for competence that had delivered it an overall majority in 2011.  

READ MORE: Ewing calls for Hamilton evidence to be made public after FOI defeat

"Nicola Sturgeon insisted on defining her leadership in terms of closing the educational attainment gap.  Humza Yousaf appears to have taken one lesson from his predecessor’s failure.  He appears to avoid being identified with any policy goal  but this leaves a gaping hole.  

"He claimed to be the continuity candidate but has abandoned some key policies from his predecessor.  He styled himself a ‘progressive’ and claimed to approach government more collaboratively than Surgeon but then introduced a council tax freeze without any consultation with local government or his own cabinet and without considering the consequences or costs." 

Professor Mitchell also highlighted challenges for Mr Yousaf around party management as activists struggle "to come to terms with Sturgeon’s legacy and the collapse of her reputation and damage to her reputation". 

READ MORE: Can Yousaf calm the SNP storm a year on from Sturgeon exit?

"The SNP has gone through a series of changes over the last decade.  Activists had been remarkably self-disciplined at the point when Sturgeon inherited the leadership," he said.

"Discipline became imposed by an outwardly confident, but actually insecure leadership.  Imposed discipline became more assertive over time but ultimately started to fray towards the end of the Sturgeon era.  

"Humza Yousaf has inherited a very different party with activists struggling to come to terms with Sturgeon’s legacy and the collapse of her reputation and damage to her reputation.  

READ MORE: Can Yousaf calm the SNP storm a year on from Sturgeon exit?

"SNP activists were unlikely to be as subservient to any successor but particularly not to one who sought to be the continuity candidate and has failed to cut out a distinct policy or strategic agenda of his own."

Last year, the SNP agreed at its October conference that a majority of Scottish seats (29) in a general election would provide a mandate to begin negotiations for a referendum.

It was a change to the position advanced by Ms Sturgeon that the election would be a de facto referendum on independence, with the winning threshold regarded as a majority of votes in Scotland.

READ MORE: Can Yousaf calm the SNP storm a year on from Sturgeon exit?

Her policy came under fire in the party with some arguing the case of independence would be set back if the party did not win a majority of votes - a very high target.

The policy also ran into trouble when both the Conservatives and Labour said they would refuse to agree to a new vote, and have also made clear they would not do so under Mr Yousaf's plan which requires a lower threshold than Ms Sturgeon's.

Professor Mitchell, who was critical of Ms Sturgeon's policy, said at least she had a clear message.

"Absurd as the notion that the next UK election would be a ‘de facto referendum’, Sturgeon did at least have a clear message.  However, the SNP now struggles to articulate a clear, leave aside a convincing strategy to gain independence," he said.

"It struggles to explain how it can exert influence on a UK Government, especially as it look set to lose seats at the next election."

SNP Depute Leader, Keith Brown said: “As recent polling has shown, people across Scotland continue to support the SNP, our strong record in government and our positive vision for Scotland’s future.

“Whether it be record NHS funding, the most generous childcare provision in the UK or the game changing Scottish Child Payment, the SNP has taken bold steps to build a better, fairer and more equal Scotland - and the First Minister will continue to lead a government and party focussed on delivering for people every day by focussing on their priorities.

“As the Westminster parties continue to ignore Scotland’s interests, people across Scotland will have the chance to vote SNP at the next general election to stand up for Scotland and build a better future as an independent country.”