THAT Humza Yousaf messed up was a given. He admitted as much in his resignation speech when he said he had underestimated the degree of hurt his abrupt severing of the Bute House Agreement would cause the Greens.

It was a miscalculation which alienated the party he most relied upon for support. But I wonder if - as John Swinney prepares to take the helm uncontested - Labour and the Tories feel they miscalculated too; that by seeking to capitalise on the SNP’s troubles, they whipped up troubles of their own.

Because having brought Yousaf down, what are they left with as they head into a General Election? A more experienced and well-liked First Minister, and an SNP that’s stopped fighting like rats in a sack.

This is suboptimal for Scottish Labour which has looked set to rise on the SNP’s fall (the latest poll suggested it will gain 26 Scottish seats, while the SNP will lose 24). But it is catastrophic for the Scottish Tories, who were already forecast to lose one of their six Scottish MPs, and who are facing up to the party’s worst local election results for more than 40 years along with a crushing Blackpool byelection defeat.

All of this comes with caveats. Swinney may be popular, experienced and invested with a degree of “elder statesman” gravitas but he, too, has his flaws.

His last spell as party leader ended with a visit from the infamous “men in grey kilts”. In his time as education secretary, he presided over the 2020 results debacle and faced two no confidence votes.


The SNP show support for John Swinney

His “knight on a white charger” schtick at his press conference last week was faintly embarrassing. The SNP remains in a parlous state. After 17 years in power, it is exhausted and out of ideas.

Swinney can do nothing to dispel the shadow cast by the embezzlement charges against its former chief executive Peter Murrell and - given he was criticised for a ‘lack of candour’ in his report into the Edinburgh trams scandal - his “honest John” tag may be overstated.

Yet, within the realms of the possible, his forthcoming “anointment” is the best outcome the party could have hoped for. It avoids a repeat of last year’s brutal leadership contest (and the bad blood that lingers on). Swinney may not lift the beleaguered party out of its current doldrums and into a bright new era, but there is no-one better placed to steady the ship..

Swinney’s first asset is that everyone understands he is a reluctant leader. He has - as he himself has stressed - been trying to escape frontline politics since 2016. This means - unlike some of the younger, fresher MSPs - he ought to be driven less by personal ambition than what he perceives to be the best interests of the party and the country.

There is nothing wrong with personal ambition - it can prove a powerful, energising factor. But, right now, what the SNP needs is less: “How can I play off the warring factions to my own advantage?” and more: “How can I bring those factions together?”

Long-buried tensions

As we know, Nicola Sturgeon’s departure brought the party’s long-buried tensions exploding to the surface. Of all the fault lines running through the SNP and the wider independence movement, the most likely to produce an off-the-Richter scale earthquake - has been trans rights, with the “gender critical wing” pitting itself against the “progressives” (and vice versa).

The tension with the Greens was rooted in its support for trans rights, with many party members believing it was driving SNP policy. The severing of the deal came after co-leader Patrick Harvie criticised the Cass review and the decision to pause the prescription of puberty blockers.

This fault line deepened when “continuity candidate” Yousaf took on social and fiscal conservative Kate Forbes in the battle to replace Sturgeon last year. Winning by a tiny margin - and with the help of votes cast less for him than against his rival - the victor was in no position to kick-start a healing process.

The gulf between Yousaf’s economic vision and Forbes’ was so wide he could not keep her on as finance secretary, and - both smart and driven - she was never going to settle for his offer of the rural affairs job. And so off she went to the backbenches where she became a magnet for internal disaffection.

Kate Forbes MSP

Kate Forbes MSP

What Labour and the Tories were hoping for, no doubt, as they watched Yousaf crash and burn, was Round Two; another vicious ding-dong. And, initially, everything seemed to be going their way. With Forbes the most obvious leadership candidate, trenches were quickly dug around her Wee Free faith.

On one side stood those who saw her opposition to abortion and same sex marriage as an impediment to becoming First Minister, on the other those who held any attack on her retrogressive beliefs as misogyny and anti-Christian discrimination.

Within a matter of hours, the atmosphere had grown febrile, with angry columns, slanging matches and Twitter pile-ons all seized upon by Anas Sarwar and Douglas Ross as evidence of a party and government dissolving into chaos.

Swinney’s apparent coronation undermines that perception and offers the possibility of reconciliation. Neither “woke” enough to provoke those on the gender critical wing, nor socially conservative enough to be anathema to the Greens, he has called for an end to polarisation.

More importantly, perhaps, he shares Forbes’ fiscal conservatism. Whatever you think about this, it does mean he will be able to offer her a prominent Cabinet position such as finance secretary and/or Deputy FM; to bring her back inside the tent, where her talents can be harnessed and her potential for damage neutralised.

Greater unity

Forbes’ decision not to stand against him suggests she, too, recognises the need for greater unity. Or maybe she just thinks it would be better for her to wait until a potentially disastrous General Election is over.

Either way, the impact of their deal is already being felt. Swinney’s promise to govern from the mainstream - the moderate left - seems to have calmed frayed nerves. Some of those who backed Forbes are now throwing their weight behind Swinney. One of Forbes’ most vocal supporters, Joanna Cherry, has said that, while she would have preferred a contest, she understands the acrimony it would have generated is not desirable at this point.

As for Alex Salmond’s Alba - which briefly saw Ash Regan as a kingmaker - it overplayed its hand and was sent back off into the wilderness.

Ash Regan

Ash Regan MSP

It would be naive to suggest the SNP’s problems are over or that infighting will cease. Whether or not the party wins the most seats in the 2026 Holyrood election (and a period out of government might be to its advantage) many matters remain to be resolved. Forbes’ long-term leadership ambitions have not been dampened.

At some point, the question of whether it is possible for her to separate her beliefs from her politics will have to be thrashed out (although the fact she voted in favour of abortion clinic buffer zones was reassuring). Cherry made it clear that, for her and others, a reset is still a priority.

Finally, of course, there is the question of independence. In his resignation speech Yousaf suggested it was “frustratingly close” - something no-one on either side of the constitutional divide believes.

It was refreshing to hear Swinney being more candid, and promising to focus on bread and butter issues such as poverty, health and education. But at some point, SNP supporters are going to expect progress on a second referendum, and he has no more of a magic wand at his disposal than his predecessors.

Still, for now, the party appears to be more stable and harmonious than it’s been since Sturgeon’s resignation. How galling that must be for Douglas Ross, who was so recently congratulating himself on his part in Yousaf’s downfall.