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Humza Yousaf’s precarious position puts the SNP – and Scotland – at a crossroads

This week could bring the swift toppling of the first minister and a summer election.

Scotland's First Minister Humza Yousaf speaking to the media during a visit to the Hillcrest Homes housing development in Dundee
Humza Yousaf is now facing two separate no-confidence motions, amid febrile speculation over the future of the SNP government and the first minister.

The Scottish government has been plunged into crisis by the dissolution of the cooperation agreement between the SNP and Scottish Greens following disputes over climate and gender policy. Akash Paun and Matthew Fright discuss what might happen next

On 25 April, Scotland’s first minister Humza Yousaf ended the Bute House Agreement – a co-operation deal between the SNP and Scottish Greens. Relations had broken down the previous week when the Scottish government dropped its 2030 commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 75%, with the question of how Scotland should respond to the Cass review into gender identity healthcare for young people causing further strain. Yousaf is now facing two separate no-confidence motions, amid febrile speculation over the future of the SNP government and the first minister.

Humza Yousaf has to resign if parliament expresses no confidence in ‘the Scottish government’

In the aftermath of Yousaf’s move against the Greens, both Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar tabled no-confidence motions. Under the Scotland Act Section 45(2) the first minister is compelled to resign “if the Parliament resolves that the Scottish Government no longer enjoys the confidence of the Parliament.” 16 Scotland Act 1988,  The Douglas Ross motion does not conform to this wording, but instead states “That the Parliament has no confidence in the First Minister, in light of his failures in government”. 17 Scottish Parliament, Motion of No Confidence, Motion reference: S6M-12993,  This means there would be no legal requirement for the first minister to resign his post should this motion be carried.

By contrast, the motion tabled by Anas Sarwar states that “That the Parliament has no confidence in the Scottish Government”. 18 Scottish Parliament, Motion of No Confidence, Motion reference: S6M-13005,  So if Sarwar’s motion is successfully passed, the first minister and all other Scottish ministers would have to resign. 19 Scotland Act 47 (3c)

If the Ross motion, rather than Sarwar’s, passes then it is unclear what happens next. Yousaf’s position would be weakened – and potentially made untenable – as he demonstrably would be unable to attract the support of parliament to pass any future legislative agenda, though legally he could seek to remain as first minister.

The critical question is whether either or both motions can attract a majority in the parliament. With 63 out of 129 seats the SNP are two votes short of an outright majority and previously relied on the seven Green votes in the event of a confidence vote. The Scottish Greens have, however, said they will support the Ross motion. 20 Gillies C, Humza Yousaf: Political future of Scotland's first minister hangs in the balance as Greens back no-confidence motion, Sky News, 25 April 2024,

With opposition parties holding 65 seats, the result of any confidence vote is likely to be close. If the motion is tied, then the casting vote of the presiding officer will determine the outcome – and by convention, she would be expected to vote with the government. 

Even if Yousaf is forced out, an early election will not necessarily follow 

Unlike at Westminster, the first minister cannot simply head to ‘the Palace’ to request a dissolution of parliament, nor does a lost confidence motion automatically trigger an early election.

The legal position, as set out in the Scotland Act 1998, is that an early (‘extraordinary’) general election can take place in only two circumstances. One is that a two-thirds majority of MSPs vote explicitly for an early dissolution. This is not going to happen, given the SNP hold nearly half of all seats. 

The second route to an early election is when the first minister resigns and the Scottish Parliament is then unable to agree upon a successor for 28 days. In that eventuality, which has never occurred in 25 years of devolution, the presiding officer would set a date for an election. 

This scenario seems unlikely. While there zero chance of the opposition parties coming together to form an alternative coalition if Yousaf resigns, the SNP would likely move swiftly to select a candidate to replace him as first minister. This could conceivably be on an interim basis should the SNP hold a leadership contest that took longer than the time available. 

The Scottish Parliament would then vote on whether to formally nominate the SNP candidate to head the government. As with any vote-of-no-confidence itself, a fully united opposition could block the nomination and drag out the crisis for a month, at which point an election would be called. But the underlying reality is that at least one of the opposition parties – the Conservatives – stand to lose a substantial number of seats in an election, based on current polling. So it seems plausible in this scenario that they – and potentially the Greens as well – would at least abstain, allowing the SNP to form a new minority administration. 

Even if an early election were triggered, the provisions of the Scotland Act, drafted to make out cycle elections unusual, means there would still be an election in May 2026. A further consideration might be whether Scottish voters, who will also soon also have to vote in the UK general election, will thank any politicians that put them through three elections in two years.

SNP has substantial experience of governing as a minority – it can do so again

Perhaps the most probable scenario is a period of minority SNP rule at Holyrood. This, of course, would be far from unprecedented. The nationalist party has governed without a majority for two full parliamentary terms, from 2007 and then again from 2016.

The experience on both occasions was that this was – to many people’s initial surprise – a perfectly workable way of delivering stable government, albeit requiring a different style of leadership. The SNP had to cut deals with different parties on a case-by-case basis, accept more frequent defeats in parliament, make tactical concessions to get key business such as budgets through, and keep the opposition divided.

A minority government also needs to prioritise cross-party agreement and policies that do not require new legislation – such as a focus on improving public service performance. Liberated from having to take heed of the priorities of the Scottish Greens, and forced to focus on the bread-and-butter issues that motivate voters, is there a scenario in which a reenergised SNP emerges from this crisis to govern effectively as a minority until 2026?

Perhaps, but without a dominant leader like Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon, and after more than a decade in power, the SNP appears to be a party in decline – or at least a party at a crossroads, and a weakened minority administration could quickly lose command of events and find itself battling opposition parties seeking to inflict defeats. This week could bring the swift toppling of the first minister and a summer election, but it could also see the start of two long years in which the SNP government experiences a no-confidence motion by a thousand cuts.

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