Could the SNP finance probe ensnare new FM Humza Yousaf too?

Bernard Ponsonby asks if the new First Minister needs to reassess his loyalty to his predecessor Nicola Sturgeon.

Bernard Ponsonby: Could the SNP finance probe ensnare new First Minister Humza Yousaf? Getty Images

As the Scottish Parliament prepares to return from the April recess, new First Minister Humza Yousaf will be looking to reset his government when he unveils his programme for the coming year. 

There is no chance that, whatever the details of tomorrow’s announcement, it will cut through the noise and attending crisis that is engulfing the FM over his party’s finances. 

There is simply no hiding place for him from a blizzard of questions that the dreaded drip-drip of information fuels.

An investigation into how £600,000 raised for indyref campaigning was spent dominated the early reporting of this story. 

Then chief executive Peter Murrell quit after taking responsibility for misleading information about membership figures. Then he was arrested and released by police without charge pending further investigation.

The SNPs National Executive Committee (NEC) has ordered a review of governance procedures in what is an implicit admission that the existing ones are not fit for purpose.

Then the story of a motorhome parked at Murrell’s mother’s house raised more questions, not least why a political party needs a motorhome? The SNP said it was intended for campaigning during Covid restrictions.

Then we learned the party’s auditors quit six months ago, a fact that senior figures, including the new leader, knew nothing about.

On Sunday, a video of a conference call from 2021 emerged showing Nicola Sturgeon rubbishing the idea that there was anything wrong with the finances. On the same day party chiefs had to deny the SNP was insolvent.

Nicola Sturgeon will not be at Holyrood this week, judging that her presence would be a distraction.

She plans to represent her constituents ‘remotely’ in a sure sign that she knows she will continue to be asked questions about the party’s finances during the time she was leader.

When she does return to parliament, she will not have the comfort blanket of civil servants being at her beck and call, nor will her moves around the parliamentary estate be the subject of any security measures.

She may well discover that the new skill she must learn is how to dodge or deal with a media pack who will want to ask her some pointed questions based on her assertions in the leaked video.

The opposition sense the stench from this affair might just overpower. The Scottish Conservative Party chairman Craig Hoy MSP has called on the SNP to suspend both Murrell and Sturgeon from membership until the investigation around the party finances is resolved.

Some privately within the SNP will offer the opinion that both Sturgeon and Murrell are being treated differently from others who were suspended in the past when questions were raised about their judgement and behaviour.

This puts Yousaf, a long-term ally of his predecessor, in a difficult position. He will know that at some point he may need to cut her loose completely depending on how this plays out.

Indeed, the action of the NEC in ordering a governance probe constitutes an implicit criticism of Sturgeon’s stewardship of the party. 

Her ‘nothing to see’ mantra looks increasingly untenable. If Yousaf is too protective of the former leader, he may well end up ensnaring himself in the process.

Increasingly it looks like a question of when and not if he casts the former first minister adrift. He would do well to learn from her impressive powers of self-preservation.

Talk to elected representatives and there is a sense of despair about the party’s prospects. No one, absolutely no one, believes the Yousaf line that independence could happen in five years is anything other than a rib tickler of a joke.

His decision to take the UK Government to court over gender recognition legislation is likely to bring to the fore tensions within the SNP and make the job of leading a united party even more challenging.

There is also a sense of dread that a by-election might be held in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West constituency should Covid law breaker Margaret Ferrier be suspended from the House of Commons for more than ten days. That will spark a recall petition and an election. 

Defeat in a by-election would pile the pressure on Yousaf and heighten the sense that the SNP will lose many seats at a UK general election expected in the second half of next year. 

His immediate priority is to get out of the quicksand of the party finances but there is simply no prospect of that happening this week – the week when he should be defining the narrative of how he will govern. 

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