The Ides of March may have been over a month ago but, the knives are out for Scotland’s First Minister, Humza Yousaf, after a dramatic day in Scottish politics that was filled with scenes more reminiscent of a Hollywood film than the usual parliament at Holyrood. 

 

So, what has happened?

Last week, the Scottish Government abandoned its flagship climate goal to reduce carbon emissions by 75% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.

This came in response to a damning report from the UK Climate Change Committee that said that “continued delays to the updated climate change plan and further slippage in promised climate policies” meant the goal was “no longer credible.” In a statement to Parliament, the Net Zero Cabinet Secretary, Màiri McAllan, also said the Government would scrap its annual emissions reduction targets, which it has missed eight times in the last 12 years.

This was quite an embarrassment for a government that was one of the first to declare a climate emergency and set ambitious but necessary carbon reduction goals.

These U-turns have rocked Holyrood and now the three-year power-sharing agreement – known as the ‘Bute House Agreement’ – between the SNP and Scottish Greens has ended.

The First Minister was the one to formally end the agreement after the Cabinet allegedly “enthusiastically endorsed the position”, but today’s move comes days after The Greens announced that their party members would be given a vote in the coming weeks on whether they should remain in partnership with the SNP.

The writing may have been on the wall, but the SNP moved first.

Although this move may please some senior SNP figures, like Fergus Ewing, who believe the agreement was harming their electoral chances in rural communities and the North-east, and help slow further cracks within the party, the break-up of the coalition has left the SNP in a minority, and much weaker, governing position.

In his statement, the First Minister said the coalition had come to a “natural conclusion” and that it was time to “speak to the country with one voice – our [SNP] voice.” He added that he hoped to pursue a “less formal” agreement with The Greens as the SNP embarked on a “new beginning.”

As the First Minister made his statement, the opposition at Holyrood was watching on and sharpening their knives for Mr Yousaf at Thursday’s First Minister’s Questions.

When he arrived at Parliament and defended the coalition’s track record, Green MSPs watched on quietly – after already accusing the SNP of betrayal and for an “act of political cowardice” earlier in the day – but the other parties; the Scottish Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats were not pulling their punches.

The drama escalated when Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, announced he would be lodging a vote of no confidence in the First Minister.

Mr Yousaf’s hopes of “less formal” agreement with The Greens were shattered after they announced that they would support The Conservative motion, alongside Labour and the Lib Dems; and that they do not see themselves supporting the First Minister on policy or legislation in the future.

 

What happens next?

The makeup of the Scottish Parliament puts Mr Yousaf in a precarious position as the SNP is [now] two votes short of a parliamentary majority.

Although the First Minister’s primary rival for the party leadership contest last year, Kate Forbes, and other party heavyweights such as the SNP’s Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn, are publicly backing him, he will need to act quickly to shore up further support within his party. 

There is no doubt that behind closed doors there will be plenty of talks going on to quell critics and discontent. In a recent vote, seven SNP members rebelled against the party, so it is clear there are fractures and discontent.

Speaking of fractures, the First Minister now must curry the support of former SNP minister, Ash Regan, who defected to Alex Salmond’s rival nationalist centre-right Alba party, last October.

She has written to the First Minister to discuss terms for her support; including more focus on independence and women’s rights. And as of Thursday evening she had also told the BBC that she had not made her mind up on which way to vote. 

Alex Salmond, himself one of the First Minister’s harshest critics and widely believed to be orchestrating the ongoing attacks on Mr Yousaf’s leadership, arguably finds himself playing kingmaker and has already stated that the First Minister “had managed to annoy every opposition party in Holyrood.” 

If Mr Yousaf can secure Ms Regan’s support, the no-confidence vote will be tied and Holyrood’s presiding officer, Alison Johnstone, despite being a former Green MSP, will be bound by protocol to vote for the status quo. Without Ms Regan’s backing, the First Minister will be hoping temperatures within The Greens cool over the coming week and they possibly abstain. However, despite early speculation of a change in position after Lorna Slater, co-leader of the Scottish Greens, suggested that they may be willing to talk again with the SNP, they were later quelled by party sources. 

It should be noted that even if the First Minister loses the vote, it is not binding. He does not have to resign but given a UK general election is on the horizon and Labour could sweep dozens of SNP seats, there is no doubt he would have to go. 

If he survives the vote, the SNP expect that they will push on as a minority government until the next Scottish elections in 2026. However, this means that deals will need to be struck with the opposition at every turn; something that is going to be difficult in an ever-divisive year for politics and a looming GE. 

 

Could there be an election?

Regardless of the outcome, the murmurs for an election in Scotland have now turned into roars. Scottish Labour’s leader, Anas Sarwar, said it was time for the “circus” to end and called for an election, the Scottish Lib Dems have also called for an election. 

On Friday, Scottish Labour made its own play and will table its own motion of no confidence, this time against the Scottish Government as a whole, not just the First Minister. This could be a stronger move as a no confidence vote against the government is binding. But with only 22 MSPs, Scottish Labour will need support from other opposition parties to reach the 25-member threshold to bring the motion to debate. It has been reported that The Greens are considering their position on the Labour motion. 

On Thursday, Keir Starmer waded into the fray and said that “the sooner [an election is held], the better.” Sir Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, has also said that it is time for an election in Scotland. 

So far, the First Minister is digging in. He has said he will not resign and will win the confidence vote. However, should he have no choice but to go, who might replace him or be manoeuvring to supplant him? Might he find himself saying “Et tu, Brute” to one of his colleagues in the coming days? 

Previous leadership contender Kate Forbes has certainly been mentioned, as have a fresher cohort of political faces such as Neil Gray; the current Health Secretary who is generally regarded as a safe pair of hands, and Màiri McAllan, the Wellbeing Economy, Net Zero and Energy Secretary. 

Should Parliament be unable to agree on a successor to Mr Yousaf within 28 days, an early election will be called. But even if Mr Yousaf is replaced, we shouldn’t expect clamours for an election to quieten, they may only get louder. 

Over time, the SNP’s once-strong lead in the polls has waned. It has dropped more significantly since Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation and, most likely, more drastically since her husband was charged last week for embezzling funds from the SNP. 

There is no doubt that an election is the last thing the SNP would want but the question to ask is, has the First Minister opened a door that can’t be closed? We will need to watch how things transpire over the coming week to know more.