Humza Yousaf’s election as Scotland’s new First Minister will almost certainly see the Scottish National Party (SNP) lose seats at the next general election, experts believe, but Labour MPs cautioned against becoming “complacent” that they will fall to them.
Both Labour and the Conservatives are set to capitalise on the fallout of a bruising SNP leadership race to try and steal seats north of the border at the next election, expected in 2024.
Sir Keir Starmer is hopeful that without Nicola Sturgeon at the helm, Labour can recoup some of the seats haemorrhaged to the SNP in 2015, with the party understood to be ambitious to win back up to 20 seats.
Meanwhile, Scottish Tories are targeting the seven seats they held for two years between 2017 and 2019, which would take their current tally in Scotland of six seats back up to 13 held when Theresa May was prime minister.
Pollsters said Mr Yousaf faces an uphill battle to unite a divided party after narrowly beating Kate Forbes, the SNP’s socially conservative finance minister, to take over the reins.
Ms Forbes’ departure from the party on Wednesday after she turned down a position in Mr Yousaf’s new Cabinet may go some way to settling tensions within the party, but many believe the new leader still faces a tough job restoring the SNP’s credibility following bitter disputes over issues such as gender reforms.
Chris Hopkins, political research director at polling firm Savanta, said SNP voters could easily be “turned off” by Mr Yousaf if he fails to totally unite the party, but that the “million dollar question” is which party they would turn to.
“If he’s not seen to be pursuing things like independence in quite the way that the radical ones want him to, then they could easily be lost. I guess where they go remains up in the air,” he told i.
He suggested that SNP voters who are “no longer keen on the party because of Yousaf” might go to a splinter independence party such as Alba, “or maybe somewhere else if its domestic policy that’s driven them away”.
But one Labour backbencher told i that the party “can’t be complacent about just scooping up SNP seats” without a clear vision for Scotland from Sir Keir.
The opposition leader has visited Scotland numerous times since Ms Sturgeon announced she was stepping down, while Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, has been pushing a message that Scotland needs a “change” both party and direction.
The pair are keen to centre on issues such as the cost of living and the NHS to snatch votes in Scotland, with Labour set to capitalise on Mr Yousaf’s tenure as health secretary, under which waiting lists soared to record levels.
However, critics have suggested that the party’s muddled stance on both independence and Brexit could prevent the party from easily inheriting disillusioned SNP voters.
One Labour Shadow Cabinet member told i that the party’s ambition to use Scotland as a springboard towards a majority would likely be harder than initially thought.
They said that on current polling, Labour looks likely to win 10 seats north of the border, with every subsequent one per cent rise in support delivering a further two seats.
It means Labour would need a five per cent poll boost Scotland to achieve its target of securing 20 seats north of the border at the next election, with the party currently only confident it can secure figures in the low teens.
Strategists have insisted that gains in the devolved nation are crucial for Sir Keir’s party to win a majority. They believe Labour will only require a 9 per cent poll lead UK-wide to take a Commons majority if they can win 15 or more seats in Scotland.
However, without significant gains north of the border, the required margin for victory is more like 15 points across the whole of the UK.
It comes as Tory insiders told i that they believe Mr Yousaf’s victory allows the Conservatives, under their leader Douglas Ross, to portray the SNP as “continuity Sturgeon” and target their appeal in rural areas.
Tory MSP Miles Briggs told ion Tuesday that Mr Yousaf’s election would allow the SNP to make significant progress with perceived “Tartan Tory” in remote parts of Scotland and deliver the clear message that only the Scottish Conservatives can remove deadwood SNP MPs at the general election.
Meanwhile, Mr Ross claimed on Monday that under Mr Yousaf the SNP would move further away from the priorities of Scottish voters and that they are “consumed by the debate on independence”.
However, Labour is understood to be confident that it has already won back the support of middle-class voters who may previously have been attracted to the Scottish Conservatives.
Its leaders are said to be instead focusing on making inroads among the working-class voters who deserted them for the SNP a decade or more ago.
Mr Hopkins suggested it could ultimately be Labour that would benefit from a collapse in support for the SNP, though the question of margin remains entirely open-ended.
He told i: “If Mr Yousaf can’t unite the party and keep hold of those that aren’t that impressed by him, then Labour are likely to be the beneficiaries by sheer fact that they are the second party in Scotland.”