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

Tory-free, or not Tory-free, that is the question currently tripping up Humza Yousaf.

The First Minister gave SNP activists orders to extirpate the wretched tribe on Saturday. 

He told his party’s National Campaign Council in Perth that it was “our duty to the people of Scotland” to oust Scotland’s seven Tory MPs at the election.

It went down well with his audience. For a while. 

It didn’t take long for the grumbling to start, however. 

Pete Wishart, the SNP’s longest-serving MP,  said he wouldn’t be using that kind of rhetoric.

“I just don't think it's very helpful,” he told BBC Scotland News.

"At the last election almost 20,000 people voted Tory in my constituency [Perth & North Perthshire] and they have a right to have their view and vote respected.”

By which he means riling up Tories and galvanising them to vote, when they might otherwise sit at home on polling day, isn’t going to help ol’ Pete Wishart get re-elected. He’s right.

Read more:

Mark McGeoghegan: Yousaf has it wrong: the SNP's real fight is with Labour

Nicola Sturgeon’s former chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, also queried Mr Yousaf’s claim the election was a “straight fight between the SNP and Tories”.

Given the Tories only hold seven seats, that leaves 50 others where it’s nothing of the sort. In the West of Scotland, Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Lothians and beyond, the fight will very much be of the SNP versus Labour variety, with Labour currently on the front foot. 

“This is them feeling their way towards something," she said of her old party and government colleagues. “I'm not sure they've got there just yet”. 

There’s a lot that’s revealing about this little episode.

First, there’s the lack of authority it exposes. Mr Yousaf’s own folk wasted no time pushing back against a key part of his speech. They didn’t rate it and they weren’t shy in saying so.  

If it had been Ms Sturgeon in her prime reading the lesson, you wouldn’t have heard a peep.

Second, there’s the nervousness it betrays within the SNP camp.

Trying to reduce the number of Tory MPs in Scotland to zero for the first time since the New Labour landslide in 1997 is more than just an SNP slogan for use in the election. 

It’s about shaping the narrative after the election.

Because unless the SNP can pick up one or two seats from the Tories, it’s likely that Mr Yousaf’s party will have nothing to report but losses to Labour.

The nationalists might not make Scotland Tory-free, but if they can at least reduce Tory numbers, they can tour the broadcast studios talking about a night of mixed results.

Some losses, yes, but also some glorious gains, ministers will declare. 

Given the likelihood that the losses will dwarf the gains, it wouldn’t be terribly convincing, but it could be enough of a fig-leaf for Mr Yousaf to hide behind as he tries to hang on as leader.

Read more:

UnspunNeil Mackay: Grim start as SNP enter campaign mode facing electoral defeat

Third, and worst for SNP supporters, it suggests party bigwigs don’t know how to fight the election. It’s worse than Ms Lloyd’s diplomatic jab about not being in the right place yet.

The SNP seems to be facing in the wrong direction. 

It’s eerily reminiscent of Scottish Labour’s appalling mistake in the 2011 Holyrood election. 

If you remember, the party spent almost the entire campaign talking about the Tories, who had been in coalition with the Liberal Democrats at Westminster for the previous year. 

This so infuriated and obsessed Labour that it took its eye off the SNP.

When then Labour leader Ed Miliband spoke at Scottish Labour’s conference barely six weeks before the election, he mentioned the Tories (17 seats at Holyrood) twice as many times as he did the SNP (47 seats). 

“The Tories are back,” Labour continually warned. Not at Holyrood they weren’t. The party was fighting the wrong opponent. It proved disastrous. 

The Herald: Then Labour leader Ed Miliband spoke at Scottish Labour's 2011 conference and mentioned the Tories twice as much as the SNP to disastrous resultsThen Labour leader Ed Miliband spoke at Scottish Labour's 2011 conference and mentioned the Tories twice as much as the SNP to disastrous results (Image: Newsquest)
The SNP pulled ahead, Labour tried in vain to relaunch its campaign 10 days before polling day, and Alex Salmond’s SNP won a majority.

The SNP’s approach to this election seems just as muddled – and possibly worse.

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Unlike in 2011, the Tories aren’t back. Not here, not there, not anywhere. They’re dying before our eyes. Yet instead of confronting the threat from Labour, Mr Yousaf wants to give the Tories one last kick in the pants on their way to the graveyard.

He would rather fight yesterday’s bogeyman than today’s challenger. 

It’s dumb, it’s chicken, and if he keeps it up, it’ll be his last election in charge.