Humza Yousaf puts SNP on election footing after coalition with Greens collapses

Humza Yousaf has put the Scottish National party on an election footing after unilaterally scrapping his party’s landmark coalition with the Greens and signalling he will drop vote-losing policies.

In a surprise move on Thursday morning, the first minister called in the Scottish Greens’ two co-leaders, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, to tell them they were being sacked as he axed a power-sharing deal first hailed as a new era in consensus politics.

Yousaf’s move – quickly denounced by Harvie and Slater as “cowardly” and “weak” – followed mounting anger within the SNP about a host of electorally unpopular policies that Yousaf’s internal critics believe were forced on the party by the Bute House coalition agreement.

The collapse of the agreement triggered calls from Labour and the Scottish Conservatives for a snap Holyrood election. Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, announced the Tories would be tabling a vote of no confidence in Yousaf, which is likely to take place next week.

The catalyst for the crisis had been his government’s decision last week to abandon its “world leading” target to cut Scotland’s carbon emissions by 75% by 2030, a decision that provoked an open rebellion by Scottish Green party members.

That rebellion in turn forced Harvie and Slater to agree to an emergency vote by their party on staying in government – a concession that rattled Yousaf and immediately raised questions about the coalition’s viability.

At 8.30am, Yousaf hosted an emergency cabinet meeting in Bute House, the first minister’s official residence in Edinburgh, to tell them the SNP was returning to minority government to allow it to have sole control over policies.

Yousaf, who is facing the loss of dozens of seats to Labour in the general election, told reporters the deal had “served its purpose”. It had come to “its natural conclusion” and no longer gave his government the stability it needed, he said.

He made clear the SNP would soon ditch or water down some policies it had previously championed, now that government policy was no longer framed by the Bute House agreement.

“We will of course, have to be very wise and careful around the battles that we choose to fight, and we will be absolutely and entirely focused on the people of Scotland’s priorities,” he said.

The first minister insisted he was proud of what the coalition with the Greens had achieved, including nationalising rail services, taking 100,000 children out of poverty, bolstering green energy production, and cutting taxes for the poorest.

However, during a fractious and rowdy first minister’s questions at Holyrood, it became clear Yousaf’s government could face greater instability.

Harvie and Slater threatened to withhold Green support for Yousaf’s government. Earlier this week, they had put their leadership on the line by urging rebellious Green party members to maintain their support for the Bute House agreement, despite the crisis over the climate policy.

Speaking as a backbench MSP for the first time in nearly three years, Harvie accused the first minister of caving in to rightwing forces in Scottish nationalism and in parliament. He named Alex Salmond, the former first minister and SNP leader widely believed to be orchestrating attacks on Yousaf’s leadership; Fergus Ewing, the most vociferous SNP critic of the Greens deal; and Ross.

“Who does the first minister think he has pleased most today, Douglas Ross, Fergus Ewing or Alex Salmond? And which of them does he think he can rely on for a majority in parliament now,” Harvie asked.

He dismissed Yousaf’s assurances earlier in the day that he still wanted to collaborate with the Greens on climate policy, fair taxation and anti-poverty measures.

“That has significant consequences for how the Scottish Greens position ourselves in parliament, and the first minister cannot rely on Green support while being dictated to by forces on the right,” Harvie said.

Yousaf was “not fit for office”, Ross said. “We said at the beginning this was a coalition of chaos and it has ended in chaos.”

Because the SNP commands nearly half of the votes in Holyrood, the Tories can only win the vote of no confidence with the support of the Greens, who are Holyrood’s fourth largest group, with six MSPs. The other possibility for it passing is that Yousaf’s critics on the SNP’s backbenches abstain in the confidence vote or support it.

Earlier this week, six SNP MSPs who are aligned with the caucus that opposed the coalition deal, including Ewing and his sister Annabelle Ewing, rebelled against Yousaf after abstaining on a controversial vote to end jury trials for rape.

Immediately after first minister’s questions, Yousaf went into two back-to-back private meetings with his MSPs and his MPs, many of whom face losing their seats at the election to Labour and attacks on their competence by their Tory opponents.

There have been repeated complaints about the SNP failing to focus enough on the cost of living crisis, NHS reform and failing public services, and are instead too focused on identity politics.

Speaking to reporters at Bute House, Yousaf made clear the SNP’s policy focus would be changing. “The SNP needs the freedom and flexibility to ensure that we move Scotland forward and adapt to that changing world,” he said.

“We need to speak to the country with one voice, our voice, and as such, I’m clear that today marks a new beginning for the SNP government.”