Never say never again: Salmond bids for SNP leadership

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If a week is a long time in politics, three weeks seem enough for one of the greatest U-turns in Scotland's modern political history. Alex Salmond, who recently ruled out a second stint as party leader, is again preparing to take control of the Scottish National Party.

If a week is a long time in politics, three weeks seem enough for one of the greatest U-turns in Scotland's modern political history. Alex Salmond, who recently ruled out a second stint as party leader, is again preparing to take control of the Scottish National Party.

Mr Salmond's announcement, on the eve of the closing date for nominations, has stunned his party, whose backers include the actor Sean Connery. The Banff and Buchan MP, who resigned as party leader four years ago, said last month: "If nominated, I'll decline; if drafted, I will defer, and if elected, I will resign."

Yesterday Mr Salmond, 49, said he had never expected to be applying for the job again but "time and circumstances change". He added: "I did not anticipate that after waiting 300 years for a parliament that it would allow itself to sink so quickly into something approaching public disrepute.

"I did not expect that a failing Labour Party with such mediocre leadership in Scotland would be able to cling to power in the face of such a changing political landscape. Labour is no more than a puppet administration in Scotland with the strings pulled by a prime minister who spills innocent blood by taking the country to war on lies and deceit."

Mr Salmond, who claimed an avalanche of letters, phone calls and e-mails from supporters asking him to stand changed his mind, told the campaign managers of the other challengers on Wednesday that he intended to put himself forward. One contender, Nicola Sturgeon, a close ally of Mr Salmond, agreed to run as his deputy in the leadership election to succeed John Swinney.

But the other two contenders showed no sign of pulling out. Roseanna Cunningham, MSP for Perth, said: "Through the twists and turns of speculation over who might or might not stand, my approach has been direct. I was the first to announce my candidacy, the first to lodge my nomination papers and I believe I will be in first place when the ballot papers are counted." Ms Cunningham, who was deputy to Mr Swinney, had been considered the front-runner by many.

Ms Sturgeon, although seen as a capable and ambitious contender with much support in the West of Scotland, does not enjoy the high profile that Ms Cunningham does in the SNP heartland north of the Tay.

But as part of a team with Mr Salmond, a charismatic and popular figure among grassroots supporters, Ms Sturgeon's continued rise in the party is assured. "I am confident that, together, Alex and I will be the winning team that puts the SNP back on track and Scotland on the road to independence," she said yesterday.

Michael Russell, a former SNP chief executive who lost his South of Scotland seat last year, said he was "deeply surprised" at Mr Salmond's move, and said many in the party would be bemused by the sudden change of direction. "I am not afraid in any sense of a policy debate with Alex, not least because I used to write the lines for him, so I shall enjoy doing that."

Of the three contenders for the post, to be decided by a ballot of members by 31 August and the result announced on 3 September, only Ms Cunningham, is an MSP. Yesterday Mr Salmond ruled out any imminent return to Holyrood and said that if he and his running mate were successful, Ms Sturgeon, MSP for Glasgow, could be the party's Holyrood parliamentary leader. He said the main priority would be for the party to fight the next Westminster elections, expected next year, then the Scottish Parliament elections in 2007 when he would be challenging Jack McConnell for the post as First Minister.

Mr Salmond, a former economist with the Royal Bank of Scotland before winning his Westminster seat from the Tories in 1987, spent 10 years as leader of the SNP. He repositioned the party significantly, defining it as more social democratic and pro-European, taking it from a one-issue party to a serious political force.

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