IS Humza doing well or badly as SNP leader and First Minister?

After 144 days, what’s fair to think he might have already achieved?

Solved stuck problems like the ferry fiasco or closed the attainment gap? Probably not.

Reboot the case for independence? That has been left for members to decide at the SNP’s October conference. If there isn’t enough time for a truly vigorous debate and is any hesitation by the new leader thereafter, there will be trouble.

But in the latest YouGov opinion poll, Yes is up three points and Yousaf’s popularity ratings have improved – up 11 points since June. Mind you, it’s still a net -16 and the poll also suggested that only 52% of those who voted SNP in 2019 think the new leader is doing well – “far behind the levels enjoyed by Nicola Sturgeon when she was in post,” observed The Herald.

So, what do those dissatisfied 48% think he could be doing better?

There will be as many answers as there are individuals.

But unfavourable comparison with Nicola Sturgeon is clearly one of the problems.

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This way of benchmarking “success” is very human but also massively unfair. Comparison with Nicola as leader neatly skips over the awkward reality of what has happened since she stood down. Her physical absence at Holyrood means that the fallout of arrests, rumour, innuendo and uncertainty has been inherited by the new – not the “old” – first minister, even though he was not a signatory on those vexed SNP accounts.

But it’s more than that.

Like her, love her or loathe her, Nicola Sturgeon was a big personality, a definite force to be reckoned with. That force may formally have disappeared in the flash of a resignation speech – but it takes a lot longer to disappear from the Scottish body politic. So, by comparison, Humza Yousaf cuts a smaller figure. That’s inevitable and unavoidable.

Think of Nicola Sturgeon, and a thousand images come to mind. Detractors will have their long list – most will remember the “glory” days. Nicola wiping the floor with successive Scottish Secretaries in those memorable pre-indyref STV TV debates.

Nicola taking over from Alex Salmond in an emotional press conference, and embarking on a stadium tour culminating in a Glasgow Hydro gig with more than 12,000 Yessers in the audience, including Richard Walker who announced his intention to start this paper and become its first editor from the floor. Somehow, though, the moment and the kudos went to the tiny tartan-clad figure, hands aloft, audience enthralled.

The images of a powerful, successful leader continued – Nicola making mincemeat of all-comers at First Minister’s Questions. Nicola head and shoulders above rival leaders on election husting programmes – including Westminster leaders when they dared. And, of course, the daily Covid bulletin during the long pandemic that turned the straight-talking, well-briefed Scottish leader into the most popular politician in Britain at one stage – aided by the regular voiceover send-ups by Janey Godley whose sweary-filled vernacular versions did the FM’s working-class credentials no harm at all.

The National: Humza Yousaf and Nicola Sturgeon in 2016Humza Yousaf and Nicola Sturgeon in 2016

The former first minister over the last decade as leader – a wheen of images.

The new first minister over the last decade as a government minister – sorry Humza – absolutely none.

There’s the rub.

Yes, there was a powerful speech at a National-organised rally at George Square in 2019, viewed by thousands in the crowd and thousands more on the livestream. But not enough to make a strong impression. Apart from that and the time he took his oath in English and Urdu as a new MSP in 2011, Humza has been as low-key as the rest of Nicola Sturgeon’s cabinet.

You could say that’s his fault.

You could say that was Nicola Sturgeon’s design.

You could say that’s par for the course in a modern presidential-style party of government.

And you could say that’s one of the many things about the SNP that Yousaf must change.

But that was then. What about his profile since the former health secretary announced his candidacy in February?

It’s been a mixed bag.

There was that look of shock when Kate Forbes called him useless to his face before tens of thousands of viewers in a televised husting. A few weeks later there was his upbeat and gracious acceptance speech, followed by a tweeted picture as Yousaf offered Maghrib prayer after breaking Ramadan with family members in the official residence of Bute House. The picture went viral with two million views and largely positive coverage in the Middle East.

But there were some pelters here on social media. Perhaps it was the sudden and dramatic transition from the female and religion-free zone created in that room over the past nine years. Perhaps it was the fact Humza accidentally obscured his mother in the picture, making the family line-up look exclusively male.

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Depending on your background and outlook, that image was unsettling, positive, neutral, new or just different. Either way, it demanded a bit of adjustment. No bad thing.

There was the stirring speech at the Dundee convention, interrupted by a woman protesting loudly about the lack of a public inquiry into disgraced NHS Tayside surgeon Sam Eljamel.

The decision to deal with that delicate situation immediately, personally and publicly was jaw-dropping and totally unprecedented by a new party leader – it spoke of a man either so reckless he barely hesitated before risking his reputation or so accustomed to mediating difficult situations that he knew his own intervention was both necessary and likely to be worthwhile. Or maybe a bit of both.

Whatever, it was impressive to witness, along with Yousaf’s rebuke of the cheering crowd. For those close enough to hear Theresa Mallett’s angry account of her daily pain and despair, the encounter was a sobering reminder of the responsibilities of government, not a negotiating victory. And Yousaf struck precisely that non-triumphal note in its aftermath. Perhaps that contributed to the recent boost in his ratings.

Earlier this week, in a Fringe appearance, Yousaf found his feet again, faced with another heckler: “It’s a democracy. I don’t mind a good heckle, frankly, it saves my dad from doing it.”

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These are memorable moments that demonstrate Humza can rise to the occasion. And yet laid against the long tenure by Nicola Sturgeon – for good and ill – they somehow fail to stick or resonate, even with the party faithful.

Perhaps that’s because an era of image, soundbites, presentation and ferocious debating skills did not advance independence or better governance in Scotland. We don’t really need more of the same – we need strategy, more open policy-making and a First Minister ready to stick to his guns, see off his critics and make a centrepiece of the Green Transition, the importance of independence to achieve it and the courage to raise taxes in Scotland to help redistribute wealth.

So, I raised a small cheer to hear Humza tell a Holyrood podcast that he might “piss off” some people with his first Programme for Government in September which will include action on climate change and possible tax rises.

There’s no further detail yet – but this sounds good. Bold, unflinching focus is what he needs as FM and what we all need as a country and independence movement.

Humza can’t go back in time to acquire the indyref leadership battle scars that guaranteed both respect and infamy for his predecessor. But he can strategise boldly and delegate to get more good governance done.

That may not be jazzy enough to turn his popularity ratings around overnight. But if he can dim the sound of constant criticism, refuse to panic, restore genuine debate to the party and a tentative confidence in the SNP’s bona fides – then I’d say Humza Yousaf has made a very acceptable start.