Orcadian Column, 25 April 2024

24 Apr 2024

When it comes to the “worst week since becoming First Minister”, Humza Yousaf has set the bar impressively high bar. Even so, last week put in what felt like a Personal Best performance.

Having been under siege for days on multiple fronts, Humza Yousaf must have breathed a sigh of relief as MSPs headed for the exits after Decision Time on Thursday. It was at this point, however, that news broke that Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell had been re-arrested on embezzlement charges connected to ongoing police investigations into the SNP’s finances. Who knows where this will end, but what was immediately clear was that Police Scotland had placed the tin hat on a day from hell for Humza Yousaf.

The bombshell about the SNP’s former CEO came only hours after a statement to parliament by Net Zero Secretary, Mairi McAllan confirming the government had no way of meeting its 2030 climate change target, which would have to be dumped. This admission also now risks the First Minister’s coalition with the Greens going up in smoke.

Environmental groups have reacted with predictable fury. Friends of the Earth described it as “the worst environmental decision in the history of the Scottish Parliament”. Meantime, Oxfam branded it a “reprehensible retreat” and blamed the SNP/Green government’s “recklessly inadequate action to date”.

Needless to say, Ms McAllan had other ideas. To her mind, and in keeping with this administration’s standard operating procedure, the failure was all the fault of everyone but the Scottish Government. Yet, the UK Climate Change Committee has been warning consistently over many years that the Scottish Government needed to match its world-leading rhetoric with a detailed and credible plan of action to achieve its targets.

Ms McAllan confirmed that emergency legislation would be introduced to abandon the statutory target for 2030 as well as the requirement for annual target setting. At the same time, she claimed, ministers would be redoubling their commitment to ‘climate action’. Amidst a raft of generally uninspiring initiatives, however, was the proposal for ‘joint ticketing’ on public transport. This is a welcome and necessary measure but hardly game-changing and one first promised by Nicola Sturgeon as far back as 2012.

After years of SNP ministers trotting the globe, lecturing other governments on how to tackle climate change, this humiliation could scarcely be more comprehensive. However, it also begs serious questions about the purpose of Greens in government. It’s a question angry grassroots Greens having been asking themselves, prompting the hasty scheduling of a special summit in the coming weeks to allow members a vote on whether to remain in government or ditch the Bute House Agreement.

Joint Green leaders, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater appear desperate to save the agreement and their ministerial positions. Should members take a different view it may well usher in a new leadership.

After last week, leadership change is also on the lips of some SNP colleagues at Holyrood once again. Growing numbers would gladly see the back of their Green partners and a ceremonial shredding of the Bute House Agreement.

For an embattled First Minister, this week looks like offering little respite. Legislation on wide-ranging justice reforms will be debated, including proposals for juryless rape trials which have attracted fierce criticism from the legal profession and cross-party MSPs, including SNP members. However well-intentioned the measures, the overall package looks over-ambitious, undeliverable and fraught with risks. Given the government’s recent track record, it’s a risk parliament may be unwilling to take.  

A long overdue ministerial statement is expected too on the outcome of the Cass Review into gender identity services for children and young people in England. While any decisions in Scotland will need to be clinician-led, NHS Scotland has confirmed that use of puberty ‘blockers’ was paused for new patients last month, though the decision wasn’t made public at the time. Once again, Humza Yousaf’s government finds itself on the back foot and struggling to build public confidence.

As respected academic, Professor John Curtice observed recently, the First Minister appears to have “an inverse Midas touch”. It’s hard to imagine this week being worse than last for Humza Yousaf, but any sensible political observer has long since stopped placing bets.

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