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By Ben Guerin
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Who's In And Who's Out In The Race To Replace Nicola Sturgeon As SNP Leader?

SNP leadership hopeful Kate Forbes with Nicola Sturgeon (Alamy)

6 min read

Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf are among the top names who have formally declared their intention to run to become Scottish National Party leader and First Minister of Scotland after Nicola Sturgeon resigned from the job last week.

Candidates have until Friday to reach the threshold of 100 nominations from at least local branches, and a new leader will be confirmed on 27 March.

Unlike the prominent role played by MPs in Westminster's recent Conservative Party leadership elections, all SNP hopefuls who hit the threshold will automatically be put on the ballot with every party member being given a vote on who they wish to take the top job.

Sturgeon herself has said her party had an "array of talent" ready to replace her –  but with several senior party figures ruling themselves out of the race, who is still in the running to become the next leader in Scotland?

Humza Yousaf

A prominent figure since his election in 2011, Yousaf has been seen for several years as a potential candidate for the SNP's top job.

Launching his leadership bid on Sunday, he said: "You've got to put yourself forward if you think you're the best person for the job. And I do. This is the top job in the country, and it needs somebody who has experience."

That experience includes several long stints in senior cabinet positions, including previously as Scotland's justice minister and now as health secretary. But Yousaf has been dogged by negative headlines during his time in the roles, with his record of handling of Scotland's NHS leading to repeated calls from opposition parties for his resignation.

Health Secretary Humza Yousaf
Health Secretary Humza Yousaf

With a significant media profile, Yousaf is viewed as a close ally of Sturgeon's, leading to concerns that he would act as a continuity leader who would stick with both Sturgeon's current independence strategy and retaining the controversial gender reforms, both of which are believed to have significantly contributed to her weakened position ahead of her resignation. 

But Yousaf has already secured the support of prominent colleagues, with SNP culture minister Neil Gray – who was touted as a potential leadership hopeful – saying he was not planning to stand and would instead be throwing his backing behind Yousaf.

Ash Regan

The second MSP to have formally declared their leadership ambitions, Regan resigned from Sturgeon's government over the gender self-identification plans and has since become an outspoken critic of the legislation.

A former community safety minister, Regan has the least public profile out of all the declared candidates, but has the most hardline stance on securing independence, claiming that a pro-independence majority at any election should lead to 'Scexit' negotiations.

Ash Regan
Ash Regan has announced her bid after resigning from Sturgeon's government.

Alongside her pitch to treat any Holyrood or Westminster election as a de-facto independence referendum, a controversial position also pushed by Sturgeon, Regan also pledged to call for a fresh independence convention to "create a new vision of an independent Scotland".

While Regan's strong stance on independence might appeal to certain wings of the party, her opposition to the gender reform legislation could cause friction if she was elected, with the Scottish Greens suggesting the policy was a red line which if breached could force them to scrap the Bute House Agreement – the formal coalition between the two parties – meaning the SNP may not have enough votes to elect their new leader as First Minister.

Kate Forbes

Finance secretary Kate Forbes has already had a meteoric rise to the top of Scottish politics after taking over the senior role in 2020 following the resignation of Derek Mackay.

The MSP has cut short her maternity leave to launch her leadership bid on Monday, saying the "nation and movement" was at a crossroads as she promised to bring "experience and competence" to the role.

In a slick social media clip, the Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP laid out her experience running Scotland's economy and insisted she was a "unifier" who could bring the strands of the independence movement back together.

But Forbes is expected to face questions over her membership of the Free Church of Scotland – sometimes known as the "Wee Frees" – and their highly conservative views around gay marriage and abortion, and how that stacks up against the party's socially liberal standing.

The MSP has previously defended herself against similar criticisms, saying: "I make my own decisions on the basis of what is right and wrong, according to my faith, not according to the diktat of any church."

Like Regan, any opposition by Forbes to social policy could lead to a fracture with the Scottish Greens, leaving the SNP with a minority administration and increasing the chances of a snap Holyrood election.

First elected in 2016 at the age of 26, and now 32, Forbes would be the youngest First Minister ever if she is successful in the contest.

Who's Out?

Angus Robertson

Senior SNP figure and current architect of the party's independence planning, Robertson was the bookie's favourite to replace Sturgeon until he dropped out on Monday morning.

Despite holding several senior party positions over his career, Robertson said due to being the father of two young children, "the time is not right for me and my family to take on such a huge commitment".

A popular party figure, the remaining leadership candidates will be vying for Robertson's endorsement as the contest continues.

John Swinney

A former SNP leader and current deputy first minister, Swinney was viewed as a potential successor to Sturgeon given his long experience at the top levels of Holyrood.

Like Robertson, Swinney was seen as being close to Sturgeon, something which may not be attractive to members looking for a shake-up of the party's strategy.

In a statement on 16 February, Swinney announced his decision to stand back, saying he wanted to "create the space for that fresh perspective to emerge".

Keith Brown

The SNP deputy leader ruled himself out of the contest on Sunday saying he had come to the conclusion that he could best serve the interests of the party by supporting them through the contest and providing a "degree of continuity as we come to terms with Nicola's resignation".

Unlike the other two senior SNP figures, Brown said as deputy leader he would not be making any public endorsements during the leadership race, but called for a "robust but respectful contest".

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