News & Insights  |  Posted March 27, 2023

Yousaf wins SNP leadership in close contest. So what now?

As Humza Yousaf emerges victorious from the bruising battle to become SNP leader and almost certainly the next First Minister of Scotland, John Penman takes a look at what his new Scottish Government might look like, what his priorities will be and whether the thin margin of victory will make it difficult for the party to unite behind him.

Humza Yousaf, who was the favourite from the start, has won the contest to become leader of the SNP and First Minister-elect… but only just.

His winning total of 52% after the allocation of second preference votes was just 4% ahead of Kate Forbes on 48%. Ash Regan was eliminated at the first stage with just over 11%. Turnout was 70%.

Yousaf’s first task will be to win the election as First Minister tomorrow which should be a formality with support from the Scottish Greens. He will then appoint his Cabinet and face his first First Minister’s Questions on Thursday. But what will a Yousaf government be like and can he continue the SNP’s outstanding track record in winning elections?

What will be Humza Yousaf’s policy priorities if he becomes First Minister?

He was labelled the continuity candidate and as such many of his policies are likely to differ little from those of his predecessor.

  • The expansion of free childcare to one and two-year-olds for 22 hours a week.
  • Investing to provide more affordable housing.
  • More direct investment into GP practices which work in deprived areas, as well as increasing GP training places.
  • Open to overhauling the National Care Service.
  • Would consider introducing wealth taxes to pay for more generous welfare benefits.
  • Will continue with current policy regarding the North Sea
  • Favours a publicly owned renewable energy company that would build its own projects.

Who will be in his Cabinet and who will become Deputy First Minister?

This will be one of the most eagerly awaited Scottish cabinets in recent years. Yousaf also has to choose a new Deputy First Minister after John Swinney said he would step down. Candidates for Deputy FM could include

  • Shona Robison – an experienced parliamentarian, she would be a safe choice having been an MSP since the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 serving in both Alex Salmond and Sturgeon’s governments. Also as a Dundee MSP would balance Yousaf who is a Glasgow MSP
  • Angus Robertson-  another with great experience but could take on the new role as Independence Minister. Would be a popular party choice as DFM.
  • Màiri McAllan – if he wants to be bold. Very popular even though she only entered parliament in 2021. She was considered early on to be a potential candidate for leader but quickly fell in behind Yousaf.

His campaign manager, the junior minister Neil Gray the MSP for Airdrie and Shotts, should see a promotion to at least a Cabinet position. Other Cabinet figures such as Michael Matheson and Jenny Gilruth have been vocal supporters. All eyes will be on whether he sees fit to give Kate Forbes a seat at the table after she said she would be proud to serve him.

Ash Regan, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes as the new leader was announced.

How will he get on with the UK government?

The Prime Minister and First Minister may share an Indian heritage but their politics couldn’t be more apart. Under Sturgeon, the relationship with Westminster was frosty at best. Yousaf may look to redefine it a little while not cosying up to a Tory PM. And will the PM react more positively to a new face in Bute House while standing steadfast against another independence referendum?

Does this make the prospect of a new independence vote more or less likely?

The phenomenal electoral success of Salmond and Sturgeon has fueled much of the rise in support for independence. While many south of the Border seem to think the issue of Scottish independence is now less likely, the party and the cause of independence could see a boost with a new leader. Yousaf is certainly closer to the gradualist wing of the party, but he has said he will tackle the UK Government’s Section 35 order in relation to the vetoing of the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill and will take them to the Supreme Court to determine if the Scottish Secretary had the power to use it for the first time since devolution.

The slide in support for separation during the leadership campaign has to be arrested to give him any chance of success.

Humza Yousaf. The new First Minister of Scotland

Will Yousaf be able to unite his party after such a knife-edge result?

Not since 2001 has the SNP had to endure a contest for leader – and it showed. During the contest, the rivals traded blows and others in the party despaired that the spectacle was damaging the independence cause, a position borne out by some negative polls. The final outcome was as close as many predicted and Yousaf acknowledged that in a victory speech that mentioned his rivals and the need to unite the party. It’s likely that had Forbes won, the party would have fractured. Yousaf was the establishment choice and as such has the backing of the higher echelons at both Holyrood and Westminster.

John Penman


Humza Yousaf, Scotland's new First Minister and leader of the SNP