What next for Scottish politics after Humza Yousaf wins SNP leadership contest?

Outgoing First Minister Nicola Sturgeon alongside Minister for Health and Social Care Humza Yousaf (left) in the main chamber after her last First Minster's Questions (FMQs) in the main chamber of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Picture date: Thursday March 23, 2023.

Picture: PA Images.
Outgoing First Minister Nicola Sturgeon alongside Minister for Health and Social Care Humza Yousaf (left) in the main chamber after her last First Minister's Questions in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Credit: PA Images

Taking over from Nicola Sturgeon - who dominated Scottish politics for so long - would be a huge challenge at the best of times. 

These are not the best of times for her successor, Humza Yousaf, though he is of course going to do his best to seize the moment.

The SNP has just come through a bitter and divisive election campaign in which his main opponent, the finance secretary Kate Forbes, was unsparing in her criticism of his record in government as health secretary.

Ash Regan, who came third in the contest, may not ever have had a chance of winning but her critique of the gradual approach to gaining independence, which Sturgeon and Yousaf both support, won her 11% of the votes in the first ballot.

And the end result - a win by 52% to 48% for Forbes after the Regan votes were redistributed - was far closer than Yousaf or his supporters would have hoped, though they may have feared this outcome.

We can never know for sure why party members voted the way they did but it is clear that a large number of them did not object to Forbes' social conservatism - for example, she said she would not have voted for same-sex marriage - or were prepared to put that to one side.

SNP leadership candidate Kate Forbes. Credit: Craig Brough/PA

Forbes herself said after the vote that her message during the campaign that "continuity won't cut it" had obviously resonated with SNP members.

There seems to be some logic in that. Yousaf was the continuity candidate. 

So what lies ahead for the man who is expected to be voted in by MSPs as the next First Minister tomorrow, and legally installed in the post on Wednesday?

Well, a substantial in-box of what many would call problems, though he will call challenges he is going to meet.

NHS waiting times, a big gap in the attainment of school pupils from poorer and better-off backgrounds, high levels of poverty, and a sluggish economy. That list could be much longer, but let's leave it at that for now.

And then there is the key issue for the SNP - independence for Scotland. One of the reasons Nicola Sturgeon stepped down was her plan to make elections "de-facto" referendums did not seem to be going anywhere.

Yousaf has said that he will revitalise the cause, including fulfilling his promise to "start the campaign" in Dumfries - as he promised activists when he was there for hustings in March.

How he will do that is not clear for now. Making the point that, as he sees it, Westminster fails Scotland and the nation needs full powers to become a progressive independent state, will be part of it.

But there will have to be more to it than that. With the Westminster Tory government simply saying no to another referendum, and the prospect of a Labour government in London, Yousaf will have his work cut out.

No one ever said that being First Minister was easy. Just ask Nicola Sturgeon.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To know...