At the end of last week, the First Minister called together his MPs, MSPs and council leaders for an “away day” before the start of the new parliamentary year at Westminster and Holyrood.
The event has been long established in the SNP calendar and it’s intended for the party leader to address his most senior elected members as they embark on the challenges of the next 12 months and also to give them the chance to put questions to him and get an idea of his future policy plans and priorities.
Around 100 MPs, MSPs and council leaders turned out for the meeting at Napier University’s Sighthill Campus in Edinburgh last Friday.
The mood was said to be positive with people from across the party present. Kate Forbes, the former finance secretary, who was narrowly defeated in the Spring’s leadership contest, attended, as did her supporters Michelle Thomson and Ivan McKee. Joanna Cherry, who supported Ash Regan in the race, was also among the gathering.
In his opening remarks Mr Yousaf discussed the forthcoming Programme for Government, the cause of independence and the strategy for the general election, but it was when he raised the need for party unity that his speech received some of its loudest applause, according to some of those present.
Comments by polling guru Sir John Curtice last week blamed the bitter leadership contest and the public perception that Mr Yousaf is at the helm of a divided party for falling support in the polls.
Those remarks would have been heard by Mr Yousaf and his close ministerial allies – but also by others on the backbenches who did not support his leadership campaign and continue to have reservations on certain matters, notably the wisdom of the Bute House Agreement.
The question now is can his policy platform help bring them back into the fold while not putting strain on his relationship with the Scottish Greens?
It’s likely that his mission to tackle poverty by growing the economy and many of his announcements made in his speech this afternoon will have strong appeal to the SNP parliamentarians who supported Ms Forbes in the leadership contest as well as those MSPs and MPs who backed him in the race.
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Indeed part of his address could have been delivered by Ms Forbes herself, echoing much of the philosophy she articulated in her leadership pitch.
“There is no doubt in my mind that economic growth goes hand-in-hand with tackling poverty,” Mr Yousaf told Holyrood. “The programme for government I am publishing today is unashamedly anti-poverty and pro-growth.”
He continued: “This programme is an opportunity to be explicit about the driving mission of this government. So let me make it abundantly clear, we are a government who will maximise every lever at our disposal to tackle the scourge of poverty in our country.
“We have adopted progressive tax and spending policies to face those challenges, and I will never shy away from the belief that those who earn the most should pay the most.
“But let me be equally clear, without any equivocation, we also need to support economic growth. Not for its own sake but so we can tackle poverty and improve our public services.”
Among the list of announcements that will find favour across the SNP will be ones on expanded free childcare provision and recruitment of 1000 more childminders, which are not only in keeping with the moral need to address poverty, particularly among women, but also as a means to generate more revenue through the tax system by expanding the number of people in employment.
The unveiling of £15m of extra support for innovation and entrepreneurship will also be strongly welcomed as will his letter to the Prime Minister to cut corporation tax (a matter reserved to Westminster) in key industries such as renewables as will the First Minister’s renewed commitment to dual the A9 from Inverness and Perth, and to improve the A96.
Both projects are close to the heart of the First Minister’s most vocal internal critic, the long serving SNP MSP and former senior minister Fergus Ewing.
Another of Mr Ewing’s concerns has been the rural economy and it was again significant that the FM singled out the sector for support along with the need to promote the country’s food and drink industry.
How will the new focus on putting economic growth centre stage go down with Scottish Greens?
The economic growth is not included in the Bute House Agreement with the Greens opposed to the concept of unlimited expansion of GDP.
However, it’s likely they will be pleased with the FM’s announcement to progress state support for green industries and speed up the process for giving consent to new on and offshore renewable developments, cutting the time the process currently takes by half in the case of the former.
Undeniable there will be flashpoints ahead. There was no explicit mention of potential controversial policies such as gender reform legislation with a battle looming between the UK and Scottish Government over the legislation passed in Holyrood last December. The matter led to the biggest rebellion among SNP backbenchers with the matter not yet resolved.
It’s a legal battle that could continue to test party unity, but with the policy olive branches held out on road improvements, business support and promises on economic growth, backbench MSPs may be less likely to stage a repeat rebellion should thorny social issues come before parliament again. And no doubt, those inclined to revolt will be reminded of Sir John’s words of warning.
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