April 19. 2024. 7:49

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Humza Yousaf’s most pressing challenge is to hold off an expected Labour Party surge

Regardless of the result, the real winner after the leadership election in the Scottish National Party (SNP) may be the Labour Party. It smells blood in the stormy waters raging around the SNP. This is why Labour leader Keir Starmer has been to Scotland four times in the past month.

Following a brutal contest, new SNP leader Humza Yousaf faces a daunting to-do list as long as Loch Awe. He must unite a traumatised party that Nicola Sturgeon’s departure has shown to be deeply divided. In this vein it will be interesting to see what, if any, ministerial post he offers the feisty Kate Forbes, who pushed him to the brink in the leadership contest.

He must reinvigorate Scotland’s bid for independence, which is stuck in a cul-de-sac after the courts blocked Sturgeon’s last bid to force a new referendum. He must also build support for independence because even if he won the right to hold a new referendum, most polls suggest he would lose it.

Yousaf must also get on with the messy business of running the country. It became clear in the campaign that voters want an overhaul of Scotland’s public services including its creaking health service, which he failed to improve after two years as health secretary. Waiting lists are at an all-time high.

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He must also deal with the whiff of scandal that followed Sturgeon out the door. Scottish police are investigating the party’s finances after £600,000 (€683,000) of donors’ cash ring-fenced for an independence referendum went missing, apparently spent on other uses. Sturgeon’s husband, party chief executive Peter Murrell, also resigned last week in a row about membership numbers.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Yousaf must also reaffirm the SNP’s political dominance in Scotland in the face of an expected Labour surge. This could be the issue that topples him if he fumbles.

Yousaf’s first big electoral test is expected to come next year at the Westminster elections. Labour Party sources believe it could go from holding one seat in Scotland to more than 20, almost all of which would be won from the SNP, which holds 45 of the 59 Scottish seats in Westminster.

He might survive that – Sturgeon survived a similar-sized reverse in 2017 and Edinburgh is where the SNP’s real power is held, not London. But if a Labour surge continued long enough to threaten SNP hegemony at the Scottish parliament elections in three years, Yousaf would be toast.

In that scenario, the highly regarded Forbes could feasibly re-emerge to challenge him once again. Yousaf has won the top job in Scotland for now. Staying there will be a whole new challenge.