Who could replace Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader?

We break down the potential runners and riders

Nicola Sturgeon

Following Nicola Sturgeon’s shock announcement that she would be resigning as SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland earlier this week, speculation on who her successor will be has been rife.

With Sturgeon having ascended to the leadership unopposed in 2014, her departure has triggered the first SNP leadership election since 2004. With SNP members voting from March 13-27, the election will be of huge significance for the future of the party and the future of Scotland.

Here’s a breakdown of all the potential runners and riders in the contest.

Who has ruled themselves out?

A number of SNP figures tipped for potential leadership bids have since ruled themselves out of the running.

John Swinney, current Deputy First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP from 2000-2004 was initially touted as a potential successor to Sturgeon. However, he has since told The Courier that he wanted to “create the space” for a “fresh perspective” to emerge and had consequently decided against putting his name forward.

Joanna Cherry – a Westminster MP currently best known for her opposition to the Scottish Government’s attempts to reform the gender recognition process – has also ruled herself out. In a scathing article for The National, she wrote that the next leader had to come from the SNP’s ranks in the Scottish, rather than Westminster, parliament. In that article, she suggested Sturgeon had enacted a “messianic leadership model” and that the party had been “run by a small impenetrable cabal”.

The SNP’s new leader in Westminster Stephen Flynn has also ruled himself out of the contest.

Who are the potential candidates?

Humza Yousaf, the current Health Secretary in Scotland, is widely expected to stand. According to the Daily Record, a friend of Yousaf says he is “veering” towards standing and that he has “a lot of support from MPs and MSPs”. Yousaf has extensive ministerial experience, having previously served as Justice Secretary from 2018-21 and served in a range of junior ministerial positions from 2012.

Kate Forbes has also been touted as a potential leadership candidate. Forbes has served as Scotland’s Finance Secretary since 2020. Despite her seniority within the SNP, if Forbes were to launch a leadership bid, her views on abortion and LGBT+ rights will likely come under substantial scrutiny. Having been critical of the Scottish Government’s policy on gender recognition, a Forbes leadership may also jeopardise the agreement for government the SNP have with the Scottish Greens.

Ash Regan, one of the rebels against the Scottish Government’s reforms to gender recognition, has been reported to be planning a leadership bid. SNP MP Angus MacNeil told Sky News, “I know Ash Regan has put her hat into the ring”. Regan resigned as Community Safety Minister in 2022 in protest over attempts to reform the Gender Recognition Act.

Of all the potential candidates, Angus Robertson is seen as the closest political ally to Nicola Sturgeon. Robertson was leader of the SNP in the House of Commons from 2007-17 and now serves in the Scottish Government as the Constitution and External Affairs Secretary.

Current SNP depute leader Keith Brown refused to rule out a bid for the leadership on Wednesday’s Newsnight. Brown also serves as Scotland’s Justice Secretary.

Other touted potential candidates include Culture Minister Neil Gray and Environment Minister Màiri McAllan.

Chris Jarvis is head of strategy and development at Left Foot Forward

Image credit: Scottish Government – Creative Commons

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