Salmond suddenly quits as SNP leader

Skilled tactician credited with transforming Scottish Nationalist Party from a one-issue movement into serious group is to step down after 10 years
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The Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, stepped down yesterday after 10 years, in a move that took the political world completely by surprise.

The Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, stepped down yesterday after 10 years, in a move that took the political world completely by surprise.

While other recent resignations - such as that of the House of Commons Speaker, Betty Boothroyd - had been widely trailed, Mr Salmond, 45, had given no hint of his imminent departure.

He said in a letter to party members that he had no intention of leaving politics and would continue as Member of the Scottish Parliament for Banff and Buchan. He also hinted at hopes of a new job, possibly in the international arena, saying that he hoped "to serve Scotland in the future in some other capacity".

He wrote: "It has been a rare privilege to lead the SNP over the last decade. In addition, I have enjoyed myself enormously. I have no complaints and no regrets. I am absolutely convinced that the SNP will win the next Scottish election and take Scotland forward to independence.

"However, translating that political success on to a personal level, that would effectively lock me into a further decade as party leader. I have decided instead to pass on the torch."

The most recent Scottish opinion poll, for The Herald newspaper, suggested that the nationalists could win 36 per cent of votes in the constituency section of the two-part elections, 3 percentage points ahead of Labour. That would put the party in sight of a majority and the declaration of a referendum.

Mr Salmond's decision will leave two of Scotland's main parties leaderless over the summer. His replacement will be chosen at the SNP's annual conference in the autumn, and the First Minister, Donald Dewar, is recuperating after a heart operation.

Mr Salmond was credited last night with transforming the SNP from a one-issue movement into a serious political party. A polished political performer and skilled tactician, he will leave a gap at the top of his party that could prove hard to fill - one possible reason for his decision to give his successor a three-year run-up to the next Scottish election.

He joined his party in 1973 at the age of 19, and became a student politician during his years at St Andrews University, where he took economics and history. By 1981, the Linlithgow-born economist was a member of the SNP's executive, and in 1987 he became the party's deputy leader. He won the top job after a tough contest against Margaret Ewing in 1990.

More recently, he has been regarded as one of Scotland's leading political debaters, although observers say that he has failed to land a "killer punch" on Mr Dewar or Jim Wallace, Deputy First Minister, at question time in the Parliament. His party has also been beset recently by internal divisions. Its treasurer, Ian Blackford, was sacked through a leadership-inspired vote of no confidence. The party had been left with an overdraft of about £500,000 after last year's elections.

Last night several contenders had already emerged for the post of SNP leader. Foremost among them was John Swinney, Mr Salmond's deputy and MSP for Tayside North, who is regarded as dependable if a little dull.

Others will include Alex Neil, a confirmed socialist who left Labour in the Eighties. He could be joined in the contest by Roseanna Cunningham, MSP for Perth, a lawyer, she chairs the Justice Committee and has become a feisty and effective performer in Parliament, and by Kenny MacAskill, a fundamentalist and football fan who once memorably described the England team as "the great Satan".

Other senior politicians paid tribute to Mr Salmond last night. Mr Dewar said that he was surprised at the news. "Alex Salmond has fought hard for his party for 10 years now, he has been a doughty opponent, I have considerable personal respect for his ability and I'm sure he will be missed from the centre stage role he has occupied," Mr Dewar said.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said that Mr Salmond had played an important role in Scottish politics. "He will no doubt be terribly disappointed that he failed to deliver independence for Scotland, but he has performed the difficult task of keeping the different factions in his party together," he said.