LONDON — Humza Yousaf reached for the reset button Tuesday. But, with a police probe engulfing the Scottish National Party he now leads, it looks like he’ll need a bigger button.
In a key speech to the Scottish parliament, the devolved nation’s new first minister set out his platform for the next three years at the helm of the governing SNP. Yet all the attention was on both his absent predecessor Nicola Sturgeon — and another high-profile arrest in the party ranks.
On Tuesday morning, just as Yousaf prepared to deliver his plan, the SNP’s treasurer Colin Beattie was taken into custody in connection with an ongoing police investigation into the SNP’s finances.
It’s the latest twist in a near-two-year inquiry by Police Scotland, which began after complaints were made about the party’s use of a £600,000-plus fund raised by activists and intended to be ring-fenced for campaigning on its biggest prize: Scottish independence. And it came in the week Sturgeon — a key player in Scottish politics for more than a decade — faced mounting scrutiny about her own handling of the party’s financial affairs.
Addressing journalists in the Holyrood parliament before his big speech, Yousaf admitted the timing of the arrest was “certainly not helpful,” although he stressed those concerned are “innocent until proven guilty.”
“Of course I’m surprised when one of my colleagues has been arrested,” he said, telling reporters he does not “believe” the party he leads is operating in a criminal way.
“Poor Humza,” one former Scottish government adviser sympathetic to Yousaf said. “It’s bloody awful timing. Through no fault of his own, he’s not been off to a great start.”
The Sturgeon shadow
Beattie is the second major SNP figure to be arrested in connection with the party’s finances.
Former SNP chief executive Peter Murrell — who is also Sturgeon’s husband — was taken into custody two weeks earlier, after officers turned up at the house he shares with Sturgeon. He was released without charge pending further investigation. The SNP has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
Sturgeon did not attend Yousaf’s statement in the Scottish parliament Tuesday, with a spokesperson for the former first minister saying she would participate remotely “in order to ensure focus of this week is on the new FM setting out his priorities for the people of Scotland.”
Such differentiation looks like an increasingly difficult task for Yousaf, who has spent days fielding questions about Sturgeon amid calls from Scottish opposition parties for her suspension from the SNP.
Those demands come after a leaked video from March 2021, published by the Sunday Mail, showed Sturgeon telling a meeting of the SNP’s ruling body that the party had “never been in a stronger financial position.” Two months after the video was dated, two members of the SNP’s national executive committee quit, citing concerns about financial transparency. In June of that year, Murrell loaned the party £107,620 to help out with “cash flow.”
Yousaf positioned himself in the SNP leadership race as the person best placed to build on Sturgeon’s legacy — but supporters hope he can now define himself as his own man.
“He’s definitely got a mountain to climb, but he’s genuinely determined to set out his vision and put his policy agenda at the forefront — which is broadly a shift to the left from the Sturgeon era,” said one SNP official.
The same official acknowledged, however, that it will be “extremely difficult to eclipse the constant radioactive bin-fire we’re dealing with … it’s safe to say he’s not had a long honeymoon period.”
“All the stuff in the background I don’t think he can be blamed for,” the former Scottish government adviser quoted earlier said.
“But it’s how you seize back the narrative, that’s something that is in your gift,” they added.
As part of those efforts to keep the show on the road, Yousaf made two notable breaks with Sturgeon-era policy in his Tuesday speech.
He announced that the Scottish government would postpone a controversial bottle deposit return scheme, meant to cut single-use drinks containers but under fire from business lobbying groups and some of Yousaf’s own backbenchers.
And Yousaf also announced that plans to restrict alcohol advertising would go “back to the drawing board.” Both policies were key measures championed by his predecessor in the final stretch of her premiership.
Meanwhile, jubilant unionists fighting SNP efforts to take Scotland out of the U.K. now spy a real opportunity. The once-dominant Scottish Labour Party has made small advances in recent opinion polls and hopes to seriously challenge the SNP in next year’s U.K. general election.
Unionists of other colors are just pleased to see a chink in the SNP’s once-impenetrable armor.
“Finally, the criticisms we have seen leveled at the SNP for years are coming to light — they have lost their Teflon coat,” Downing Street’s former union adviser Luke Graham said.
Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.