The stony faces of SNP backbenchers at First Minister's Questions last week revealed much about the gloom among the party at Holyrood.

A low mood took hold of the SNP when Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation as First Minister on February 15 last year, and amid a series of turbulent events that rocked the party furher has shown little signs of shifting.

The immediate cause of despondency last Thursday was the resignation of Michael Matheson who had stepped down that morning as health secretary after three months of controversy over an £11,000 roaming charge he ran up using his iPad on holiday with his family.

Reports suggest a parliamentary report on his expenses claim found he had misled Alison Johnstone, Holyrood’s presiding officer, and David McGill, parliament’s chief executive.

READ MORE: Humza Yousaf may have blundered by leaving Kate Forbes in the cold

Mr Matheson had at first claimed the bill was incurred for legitimate constituency work that he had been carrying out while on holiday in Morocco over the 2022/2023 festive break and told journalists there had been no personal use of the device.

After the initial public outcry, he belatedly said he should have updated his parliamentary IT package before taking the device abroad and agreed to give the money in full to the Scottish Parliament.

The Herald: Nicola Sturgeon pictured in Bute House announcing her resignation as First Minister and SNP leader in February last year. Photo PA.

However, the saga took another twist when it later turned out that the bill was actually incurred by his sons watching a football match on the same holiday.

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

Had he apologised, paid the money back when the parliamentary authorities first queried the bill in January last year, he would probably still be health secretary.

The timing of his exit could hardly have been worse with major challenges facing the NHS.

Figures published by Public Health Scotland last Tuesday showed patients enduring the second worst A&E waits on record in December with 42,442 people waiting more than the four hour target to be admitted, transferred or discharged in December, more than a third of all attendees. Only the total for December 2022 was worse.

And in his letter or resignation Mr Matheson pointed to the major problems facing the service.

The Herald: Health secretary Michael Matheson in HolyroodMichael Matheson being questioned by reporters in November. Photo Getty.

"Given the growing demand our health service faces, the NHS requires major reform to ensure that we have a sustainable health service able to deliver the best possible care for patients," Mr Matheson told the First Minister as he stood down as health secretary.

"Strong and consistent leadership over the coming year will be necessary to ensure we enhance performance and drive down patients waiting times."

Mr Matheson's sudden exit added to a growing sense of turmoil around the administration. It came just two days after minister for drug and alcohol policy Elena Whitham stood down revealing she was suffering from post traumatic stress and just before Mr Matheson was due to give a major statement on minimum unit pricing. The statement that afternoon had instead to be delivered at short notice by deputy first minister Shona Robison who also had to lead on the budget debate that afternoon.

The Herald: First Minister Humza Yousaf and his new Cabinet unveiled on Thursday. Photo PA.

For SNP MSPs Mr Matheson's resignation as bad enough but what deepens their concern is that Mr Yousaf decided at the start of the saga to stick by him. The First Minister, who had previously defended his health secretary and called him a “man of integrity”, admitted on Thursday that Mr Matheson had been “dishonest” but had apologised for his behaviour.

Now some in the SNP are wondering about his ability to anticipate and deal with troubles – a key still required of a  party political leader, especially one who is First Minister.

They fear loyalty to allies - in particular to his old boss to Ms Sturgeon - is damaging the party.

"Backbenchers are no more optimistic than before," said one SNP MSP speaking after the reshuffle which saw Mr Yousaf appoint his old friend and campaign manager Neil Gray to the role of health secretary to succeed Mr Matheson.

READ MORE: Yousaf facing SNP backbench rebellion over justice reforms

"The current administration stumbles from one crisis to the next. Many of them are not Humza Yousaf's making but his ability to deal with them and his inability to distance himself from Nicola Sturgeon are dragging us all down."

Another senior insider was less jumpy.

"Humza just came in less than a year ago. He is improving day by day," said the source.

But the Matheson saga has raised concerns over Mr Yousaf's habit of appearing to put loyalty to allies ahead of the difficult decisions which have left him open to accusations of weak leadership.

Weeks into becoming First Minister Mr Yousaf backed Ms Sturgeon after she was arrested in the long running probe into SNP finances Operation Branchform in June last year, refusing to remove the whip from her.

He argued she had not been charged with any criminal offence and was entitled to remain in the party. Perhaps so, some pointed out at the time, but that was not the approach taken by Ms Sturgeon when she was party leader.

READ MORE: Operation Branchform: Complainer demands action on probe

SNP MSP Michelle Thomson underlined how she lost the whip while an SNP MP when news stories were published about her property dealings.

Ms Thomson was never under investigation by the police or arrested, but she withdrew from the party whip and was suspended. She appealed for consistency from the leadership.

But her appeal was ignored and Ms Sturgeon remained in the party - even eclipsing Mr Yousaf's first SNP conference as leader when she turned up at the event and was greeted by a host of adoring fans.

The Herald: Police officers outside the home of Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell last April. Photo PA.

Professor James Mitchell, chair in public policy at Edinburgh University, and a leading academic authority on the SNP, told The Herald: "The belated resignation of Michael Matheson 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." 

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

The turmoil of the past week follows a series of ongoing troubles on other fronts.

A constant air of rebellion stalks the backbenches. SNP MSPs are more ready to speak out than under Ms Sturgeon or her predecessor Alex Salmond to criticise the government and in particular policies relating to the Bute House Agreement with the Scottish Greens.

Long serving MSP Fergus Ewing has become a constant thorn in the government’s side over the deal - and other matters too as The Herald revealed last week with his demand for ministers to publish redacted parts of the Hamilton report into Ms Sturgeon and aspects of her dealings with Alex Salmond.

The Herald: Humza Yousaf beat rivals Ash Regan, left, and Kate Forbes, right, in last year's SNP leadership race. Photo PA.

Mr Ewing has strong support in the group with nine, including Mr Ewing, refusing to back the party's plan to suspend him in September for a week after he voted against the Scottish Greens minister Lorna Slater in a no confidence motion in June.

There is still considerable unhappiness among some about Mr Yousaf's decision to sack his narrowly defeated leadership rival Kate Forbes as finance secretary, seen as highly competent.

A lack of a clear route to the party's key objective of independence has also caused further problems.

Polls point to distrust among voters towards both Mr Yousaf and Ms Sturgeon and concern over a perceived lack of transparency in the Scottish Government with issues over record keeping giving the impression it is a government that has something to hide.

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

Ms Sturgeon told the UK Covid Inquiry in Edinburgh earlier this month that she had deleted all her Whatsapp messages relating to the period. This was despite telling a media briefing in August 2021 she would keep them.

For his part Mr Yousaf revealed he had deleted Whatsapp messages relating to the pandemic, which he said was in line with government policy. However, previously he had insisted he had kept the messages.

Following reports in October that he had erased the messages, the First Minister said at the time: “I don’t know why there’s been press reports suggesting I’ve deleted my WhatsApp messages — that’s not true.”

At the inquiry it turned out he had deleted the messages but was able to retrieve some from another device.

The First Minister apologised “unreservedly” to both the UK Covid inquiry and to people bereaved by the pandemic for the Scottish Government’s failures to hand over WhatsApp messages relating to the handling of the crisis.

“There’s no excuse for it. We should have done better,” Mr Yousaf told the inquiry.

The failure to take bold action when needed and his reluctance to distance himself from his predecessor Ms Sturgeon amid the ongoing police investigation Operation Branchform are among the factors why his personal poll rating are poor.

A survey, commissioned for the Sunday Times by Norstat, before either he or Ms Sturgeon gave evidence to the UK Covid inquiry, gave a net trust score of minus 25 for Mr Yousaf, and minus 19 for Ms Sturgeon.

(Anas Sarwar's trust score was minus 17, while Keir Starmer's trust was minus 24. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had the lowest at minus 48. Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross's trust rating was minus 38.)

Although Ms Sturgeon insisted that the police investigation into the SNP’s finances had no bearing on her decision to quit, the inquiry continues to overshadow the party.

READ MORE: Michael Matheson 'misled' Presiding Officer over £11k data bill

The police search of Ms Sturgeon’s home which she shares with her husband, the former SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, and the erection of an incident tent erected in their couple’s garden — is hard for voters to forget. Mr Murrell was arrested on the morning of the search and released without charge later that day.

Polls have suggested the annus horribilis of 2023 has led to a dramatic fall in the party's support among voters, including among independence supporters, though some surveys, including one by Ipsos last week, have continued to put the SNP ahead of Labour.

Worryingly for the SNP the general election looms at some point this year.

The Norstat poll pointed to the SNP taking just 18 seats (down from 48 in 2019) with losses concentrated in Glasgow and North and South Lanarkshire. Boosted by rising support for Labour across the UK and haemorrhaging support for the Conservatives. Scottish Labour, the poll suggested, would net 28 MPs with the SNP and Labour taking respectively 33% and 36%.

The SNP's main strategies are to target Yes voters considering switching to Labour and Labour voters who may seek a more radical agenda than Sir Starmer appears to be offering.

"Firstly we offer the prospect of more change than the Labour party does and in the short term we will do that by being a thorn in the side of the new Labour government and pushing them further and faster than they would otherwise want to go," said one senior source.

"And whether it's Green investments, wealth taxes, action on the environment or a ceasefire in Gaza, pretty much anything you can think about, the SNP has a more radical position than Labour.

"But in the medium and long term the SNP will make sure people get a choice about becoming an independent country that will allow change to happen at a much faster and more permanent pace."

And to Yes supporters considering switching to Labour, the insider added: "Starmer has made it quite plain that if he is elected in Scotland he will regard that as a vote against independence and a vote against choice on the constitutional future. They will do their damndest to keep to stop it. A vote for the SNP keeps the independence debate alive."

Hand in hand with this message, the SNP is clear to play down the risk to left of centre voters of returning a Tory government if they don't vote for Labour.

At the start of the year Mr Yousaf insisted: “It is undoubtedly the case that Keir Starmer doesn’t need Scotland to win, he’s going to be the next Prime Minister of the UK, we all know that."

While many in the party regard the two pronged approach to Labour voters and Yes supporters as potentially effective, there is also concern not enough attention is being address Scottish Government problems and that could be a major weakness.

After almost 17 years in power in Holyrood and with a myriad of issues on the domestic front there are concerns voters will use the election to give the SNP a bloody nose over its track record.

"It may not be enough to keep blaming Westminster, " said one observer.

Some believe a poor performance for the SNP at the general election would trigger calls for Mr Yousaf to go.

Those who anticipate this outcome think such as situation would arise if the SNP don't win at least 29 seats - the threshold to meet the mandate to demand talks on indyref2 - or that is doesn't remain the bigggest party in Scotland in Westminster, and that Labour takes the most seats.

Others, however, do not think it is inevitable that Mr Yousaf would have to go under either of these scenarios. 

"Leadership is only one of many factors," said one senior figure when asked about a major loss of seats.

"You have to look at what happens and then make a judgement. Of course there could be a challenge to his leadership, but I think it would be highly unlikely and highly inadvisable for the SNP to turn inwards [with a Holyrood election in 2026]. There are a whole lot of factors to be considered."

Observers of Scottish politics would have thought that 12 months on from Ms Sturgeon's shock decision to step down, the SNP would have regained its form and be looking forward to brighter days.

But with concerns over Mr Yousaf’s ability to forestall crises, or deal with them effectively, some believe the problems facing the party will intensify in 2024.

"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," said Professor Mitchell.

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