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ALASDAIR CLARK: Front-bench resignation and Michael Matheson report could be silver lining for Humza Yousaf

The SNP leader might be considering a wider reshuffle to reset the party for a tough election fight.

Humza Yousaf SNP Michael Matheson Scottish Government
Humza Yousaf may be able to take advantage of a reshuffle among his top team. Image: PA

Humza Yousaf may just find a silver-lining if a report into the conduct of his under-fire health boss proves difficult, using a potential cabinet vacancy to reset his leadership and ready the SNP for a tough election.

Michael Matheson claimed an eye-watering £11,000 data roaming bill on expenses, insisting it was incurred during the course of his official duties while abroad.

But he later admitted the bill had actually been run up by sons, who had been using the device to watch football while on holiday in Morocco.

The scandal prompted furious demands for his resignation, calls he has so far resisted.

(UPDATE: Five hours after this article was written, Michael Matheson announced he is quitting. Read the full story on his resignation here.)

Whispers at Holyrood suggest the report into the controversial expense claim by the Falkirk MSP could be published shortly, and Mr Matheson is understood to have received a draft copy for comment.

Some predict the findings will be damning, leading insiders to believe the veteran MSP will be left with little option but to give up his key government role.

Any resignation would leave Mr Yousaf with two government vacancies to fill. Drugs policy minister Elena Whitham announced on Tuesday that she is resigning from her own important role for health reasons.

Could Humza Yousaf find silver-lining in political storm?

A challenging report into the iPad expense scandal and the loss of a senior cabinet minister will no doubt be bruising for the SNP, but Mr Yousaf may find some comfort in the opportunities a cabinet reshuffle will provide.

After a difficult budget and several personal challenges, the vacancy at the top of government would allow him to refocus the government ahead of a crucial general election campaign.

The SNP will be unable to avoid voters using the election to Westminster as a mid-term referendum on the Scottish Government’s record.

Opposition parties will seek to exploit lengthy NHS waiting lists or planned spending cuts to convince voters, and Mr Yousaf will have to mount a strong defence of his record if he hopes to convince people to put their trust in the SNP.

Grim polling should be wake up call

Some polls suggest a resurgent Scottish Labour will oust incumbent nationalist MPs across the central belt, all but wiping the party out in Fife. It might end up leaving the SNP short of the 29 seats they say they will need to begin negotiations with the UK Government for Scottish independence.

The first minister must also be mindful of that old political maxim: divided parties don’t win elections.

Almost a year since he took over from Nicola Sturgeon, any reshuffle of senior ministers would provide a chance to heal internal party rifts first exposed during the leadership contest.

Kate Forbes, who Mr Yousaf only narrowly beat in the race to Bute House, turned down an offer to serve as rural affairs secretary – a move that would have been seen as a demotion for the former finance secretary.

SNP health secretary Michael Matheson. Image: Fraser Bremner/PA.

The Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP instead chose to return to the backbenches, allowing her to build a platform through highly critical attacks on the SNP-Green coalition government, most recently branding their planned income tax hike as “counter productive”.

Opposition groups seized on this division. Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross went so far as to suggest he’d held secret talks with SNP rebels.

A shrewd Mr Yousaf may be able to tempt Ms Forbes back into the cabinet with a senior role, silencing vocal opposition within his ranks and presenting a more unified front.

Of course, such a move is not without risks. Ms Forbes’ leadership campaign proved divisive inside the party, particularly among the MSP group at Holyrood.

SNP MSP Kate Forbes
Humza Yousaf could offer a senior position to Kate Forbes in a bid to heal internal rifts. Image: PA

I reported previously that some of her colleagues admit privately they would struggle to serve in a government led by Ms Forbes following the leadership contest. Many may find themselves cautious about her return to cabinet in a senior position.

Ms Forbes has also spoken out against the party’s power-sharing deal with the Scottish Greens, potentially ruling out a return to government given the strong opposition she has expressed to key policies.

Mr Yousaf faces a critical year, how he handles the perfect storm of events in the coming months will shape his future.