Humza Yousaf risks SNP civil war by handing key jobs to ‘failed’ loyalists

·6 min read
Humza Yousaf after posing for a photograph with his new Cabinet on the steps of Bute House on Wednesday - GETTY IMAGES
Humza Yousaf after posing for a photograph with his new Cabinet on the steps of Bute House on Wednesday - GETTY IMAGES

Humza Yousaf has risked deepening the split in the SNP by packing his first Cabinet with "failed, continuity" loyalists and ignoring Kate Forbes's allies for a top job.

The new First Minister handed eight of the nine roles to MSPs who endorsed him during the SNP's acrimonious leadership contest, in which he only narrowly beat Ms Forbes.

Among his allies to be handed key positions were Neil Gray, his campaign manager, who was made Wellbeing Economy Secretary, and Shona Robison, who replaced Ms Forbes as Finance Secretary as well as being Deputy First Minister.

On Wednesday night he unveiled all junior ministerial roles, with Jamie Hepburn being named as Independence Minister, a new post. Mr Hepburn will report directly to the First Minister and coordinate civil service work on separation.

Mr Yousaf said he had chosen a "significant blend of younger and more experienced members" but only three had never before served in Cabinet, with the remainder having been in Nicola Sturgeon's governments.

In addition, none of the 11 MSPs who endorsed Ms Forbes were given a Cabinet position and Ivan McKee, her first campaign manager, quit as Business Minister after rejecting a demotion.

His departure came the day after Ms Forbes rejected Mr Yousaf's offer of a demotion to Rural Affairs Secretary and left the Scottish Government.

Shona Robison replaces Kate Forbes as Finance Secretary - GETTY IMAGES
Shona Robison replaces Kate Forbes as Finance Secretary - GETTY IMAGES

Ms Robison, who served for years in Ms Sturgeon's Cabinets and is one of the former First Minister's closest allies, insisted that Mr Forbes had stepped down because she wanted more time with her family.

But Andy Collier, a former SNP advisor, said there was a "sense of despondency" among members that Mr Yousaf had not brought the party together in the aftermath of his narrow victory.

In echoes of the criticisms levelled at Liz Truss after the short-lived Prime Minister conducted a purge of Sunak supporters in her first Cabinet, Holyrood's opposition parties said Mr Yousaf had rewarded loyalty over talent.

‘A dismal Cabinet of B-rate politicians’

Craig Hoy, the Scottish Tory chairman, said: "This is a Cabinet in Humza Yousaf’s image – failed, continuity ministers appointed by a failed, continuity minister."

He added: "This Cabinet of proven flops and lackeys not only excludes Kate Forbes – who came within a whisker of beating Humza Yousaf in the vitriolic SNP leadership race – but anyone who backed her.

“Humza Yousaf clearly has no intention of ending the SNP’s civil war – just getting his revenge and declaring victory in it."

Neil Gray was rewarded for running Mr Yousaf's successful campaign with a new job as Wellbeing Economy Secretary - GETTY IMAGES
Neil Gray was rewarded for running Mr Yousaf's successful campaign with a new job as Wellbeing Economy Secretary - GETTY IMAGES

Mr Hoy said a series of Mr Yousaf's appointees had been "found sorely wanting" in their previous positions and the new First Minister had "recognised his own abject failure as Health Secretary" by adding NHS Recovery to the title of that office.

Jackie Baillie, the party's deputy leader, said: "The First Minister promised to bring the country together, but he can’t even bring his own party together.

“This dismal Cabinet cements the SNP’s new status as a deeply divided party led by B-rate politicians. At the heart of this continuity government are some of the most incompetent politicians of the last decade, set to deliver more of the same failure."

Mr McKee disclosed he had been offered a "small job" by Mr Yousaf and had rejected it. In a parting shot at the new First Minister, he told the Herald: "The relationship with business needs reset and I am not sure how this does that. I am the only person in government who had business experience."

While both he and Ms Forbes were highly regarded by many industry groups, the sector has complained their interests were ignored by Ms Sturgeon's Cabinet. Ms Robison was a social worker before becoming a full-time politician.

Mr Yousaf had pledged to reunite his warring party after only defeating Ms Forbes by a margin of 51.2 per cent to 47.9 per cent in the leadership contest following the elimination of the other candidate, Ash Regan.

Barely a third of SNP members eligible to cast a ballot gave their first preference vote to Mr Yousaf despite the party's establishment exhorting them to back him.

But instead of reaching out to Ms Forbes's supporters he promoted three MSPs to Cabinet for the first time who backed him during the campaign.

In addition to Mr Gray, Jenny Gilruth was promoted from Transport Minister to Education Secretary and Mairi McAllan from junior Environment Minister to Net Zero and Just Transition Secretary.

Angus Robertson and Mairi Gougeon, who also endorsed Mr Yousaf, kept their respective old jobs of Constitution Secretary and Rural Affairs Secretary.

The First Minister gave Michael Matheson, who also backed him, his former job at health with an expanded title of NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care Secretary.

Shirley-Anne Somerville, another supporter, was also kept in Cabinet after being moved from education to become Social Justice Secretary.

The only Cabinet member not to back Mr Yousaf was Angela Constance, who did not endorse any candidate. She was promoted to Justice Secretary, having previously been Drug Policy Minister.

Mr Yousaf sacked Keith Brown, her predecessor in the role and the SNP's deputy leader. The appointments will be approved by MSPs on Thursday afternoon.

Unveiling them, the First Minister said: "The Cabinet team I have unveiled reflects the priorities that we will pursue as a government – including tackling child poverty, improving public services and building a fairer, greener economy.

“Ahead of my appointment as First Minister, I have committed myself to a radical, ambitious and progressive policy agenda for Scotland – and I know that this team is the right one to deliver it."

Ms Robison told BBC Radio Scotland that Mr Yousaf had been willing to offer Ms Forbes other positions than Rural Affairs Secretary, which she rejected.

However, she said the former Finance Secretary "had reflected upon how hard the campaign had been for family life and her desire for a better work life balance." Mr Yousaf said Ms Forbes had told him "she wanted a bit of time out of the limelight."

But Alex Salmond, the former First Minister, told the BBC's Politics Live programme: "When you win an election by 52 per cent to 48 per cent, when your two rival candidates got more votes than you did, the very first thing you do as a leader is get them into your tent.

"You don't offer them a demotion and then wonder why they turn that down. That's an early and fairly substantial mistake."