Scottish independence ‘dead’ after Humza Yousaf SNP win, claim Labour and Tories

The Scottish independence cause is “dead” after Humza Yousaf was elected as the new SNP leader, senior Labour and Tory figures have claimed.

Mr Yousaf – who will replace Nicola Sturgeon after narrowly defeating his rival Kate Forbes – said he would be asking the UK government “straight away” to grant the Scottish parliament the power to hold another independence referendum.

The 37-year-old, Scotland’s youngest ever first minister, also promised to lead the country back into the EU as an independent nation, though he conceded he would have to win over Scots who did not share his “passion” for a breakaway state.

But gleeful Labour and Tory figures pointed to polls showing that Mr Yousaf is less popular with the wider public than is his rival Ms Forbes, and claimed that his lack of charisma and independence strategy mean he has little chance of forcing another vote on separation.

A senior Labour source told The Independent: “If Nicola Sturgeon can’t deliver independence, then someone of Humza’s abilities has no chance. The proposition is bust and they know it.”

Tory grandee Malcolm Rifkind, a former Scottish secretary, told The Independent that the end of the Sturgeon era meant Scottish independence was “dead for the short to medium term”.

Mr Rifkind described Mr Yousaf as a “minnow” compared to “large fish” Ms Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. “After two extremely charismatic leaders, the SNP will be led without that fire of leadership. He seems a decent guy, but he’s a middle-range minister,” he said.

Labour peer George Foulkes said Mr Yousaf’s victory “puts independence on a long string”. He added: “There’s no way forward and he doesn’t have a plan. It’s good news for Labour, because we’ll use Kate Forbes’s criticism of his record at every opportunity.”

Downing Street moved to quash Mr Yousaf’s request for a Section 30 order under the Scotland Act, which would allow Holyrood to legislate for a referendum.

“I think you know our well-established position,” said Rishi Sunak’s spokesperson, after the Supreme Court last year agreed with the UK government that Scotland does not have the power to hold such a vote.

The Scottish Tories’ constitution spokesperson Donald Cameron said Scots would be “astonished and dismayed that, within minutes of being elected SNP leader, Humza Yousaf’s focus was on the SNP’s default obsession with independence”.

The moment Humza Yousaf is declared victor over Ash Regan (left) and Kate Forbes (right) (PA)
The moment Humza Yousaf is declared victor over Ash Regan (left) and Kate Forbes (right) (PA)

Ms Sturgeon announced in February that she would resign, but did not put a succession plan in place and left the Scottish independence push at an impasse after her indyref2 bid failed in court.

But Andy Maciver, the Scottish Conservatives’ former media chief, warned Labour and the Tories not to get overexcited about Mr Yousaf taking over. “They’re right to be confident, but wrong to be overconfident,” he told The Independent.

He added: “I get why unionists are buoyed. It’s difficult for Yousaf because Sturgeon’s referendum strategy is dead, so he will have to create something else. But it’s too early to proclaim independence is over. Nobody should underestimate him.”

Mr Yousaf also faces the tough task of reuniting a divided party after a bitter six-week contest. Ms Forbes, the 32-year-old finance secretary, continually attacked his record as health secretary and claimed that a victory for her rival would lead to “mediocrity”.

When second preferences were distributed, Mr Yousaf took 26,032 (52 per cent) and Ms Forbes took 23,890 (48 per cent) of the votes. Ash Regan, the outsider with the most hardline position on independence, finished a distant third.

Reacting to the result, Ms Forbes said she would “certainly support” the new leader, but warned that the close result had delivered a message of “continuity not cutting it”.

Humza Yousaf says he hopes to rely on the guidance of Nicola Sturgeon (PA Wire)
Humza Yousaf says he hopes to rely on the guidance of Nicola Sturgeon (PA Wire)

Polling guru Professor John Curtice said that surveys conducted during the contest showed Mr Yousaf had “limited appeal for those outside the SNP” and suggested that the close result showed the new leader “is also not especially popular with the party faithful either”.

Writing in The Independent, Prof Curtice said: “Mr Yousaf now has to show he has the ability to craft and sell a persuasive case – otherwise independence will continue to look a rather elusive goal.”

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said the end of the Sturgeon era will make it “easier for us to achieve a Labour government”, with party strategists hoping to win 20 seats at the next general election.

Calling on the SNP leader to hold a Holyrood election when he becomes first minister on Tuesday, Mr Sarwar told the BBC: “I don’t think Humza Yousaf is up to the task, to be frank, of the big challenges now facing Scotland.”

Mr Yousaf said in his victory speech on Monday: “To those in Scotland who don’t quite yet share that passion that I do for independence, I will aim to earn your trust by continuing to ensure that we govern well [and] focusing on the priorities that matter to all of us.”

The result will come as a relief for the SNP’s coalition partners, the Scottish Greens, who unanimously voted to support Mr Yousaf in his bid to be first minister.

The left-wing party had expressed concerns about the politics of Ms Forbes – a devout Christian who said she would have voted against same-sex marriage and wanted to delay the controversial gender self-ID bill. Mr Yousaf has vowed to battle the UK government in the courts over the plan to make it easier for trans people to legally change their gender.