SNP leadership election: who are the runners and riders to replace Humza Yousaf

Whoever emerges as the final successor will inherit a party in near-meltdown

Archie Mitchell
Political correspondent
Monday 29 April 2024 20:25 BST
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Defiant Humza Yousaf insists he's to stay as vote of no confidence looms

Humza Yousaf has quit as SNP leader after just 398 days in office.

The Scottish first minister’s decision to collapse a power-sharing agreement with the Scottish Greens spectacularly backfired, and on Monday he stepped aside.

The once-dominant nationalist party is in meltdown. Former leader Nicola Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell, who ran the party for 22 years, has been charged in connection with the embezzlement of SNP funds.

Humza Yousaf vowed last week to fight and win a vote of no-confidence in his leadership
Humza Yousaf vowed last week to fight and win a vote of no-confidence in his leadership (Shutterstock)

Ms Sturgeon herself was arrested amid an investigation into the party’s finances and then released without charge. She has denied wrongdoing.

Her predecessor Alex Salmond has returned to the political spotlight, aiming barbs at the SNP’s descent into the politics of “culture wars”. And the party is being challenged by a resurgent Labour Party, set to win back swathes of seats north of the border less than a decade after being almost completely wiped out in Scotland.

Whoever emerges as Mr Yousaf’s successor faces a frightful inheritance. The Independent looks at who the runners and riders are to replace him.

John Swinney

The deputy first minister under Ms Sturgeon, John Swinney is reportedly being lined up as interim SNP leader while a contest to replace Mr Yousaf is held.

The Perthshire North MSP has held a series of roles in the Scottish government, including cabinet secretary for finance, the Covid recovery and education.

John Swinney said he will ‘consider what the first minister says’
John Swinney said he will ‘consider what the first minister says’ (PA)

He is seen as one of the few figures who could command the support of the Scottish parliament while a leadership election takes place.

A party source told The Times Mr Swinney is seen as one of only a couple of people “who can bring calm to choppy waters” and “bring reassurance to the public”.

Asked if he would want to be first minister, Mr Swinney, who has been in the Scottish parliament since it was established in 1999, said it was a “very demanding role”.

He added: “I will consider what the first minister says and reflect on that. I may well have more to say at a later stage during the week.”

Kate Forbes

Kate Forbes came a close second to Mr Yousaf in the contest to replace Ms Sturgeon, winning 48 per cent of member votes.

She is seen as a divisive figure because of her membership of the Free Church of Scotland, an evangelical branch of Protestantism with socially conservative views on abortion and LGBT+ issues.

Kate Forbes is against gay marriage and having children outside wedlock
Kate Forbes is against gay marriage and having children outside wedlock (PA)

During the leadership contest, Ms Forbes, then Scotland’s finance minister, said she would have voted against gay marriage if she was an MSP when it became law in Scotland in 2014.

She also said having children outside of marriage is wrong. Several prominent SNP backers withdrew their support for Ms Forbes. She would again be a likely frontrunner in any leadership contest, but risks alienating members on the more socially liberal wing of the SNP.

She has been the MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch since 2016 and previously worked as a researcher for an MSP.

Stephen Flynn

The SNP’s charismatic Westminster leader was considered a potential successors to Mr Yousaf, although he ruled himself out on Monday night. He would have to lead the party despite not being an MSP. As it is a long race, he may yet be persuaded to run.

Former SNP leader Mr Salmond led the party from Westminster between 2004 and 2007, but it was in opposition at Holyrood at the time.

Stephen Flynn has reportedly been touring the country to meet his MP colleagues in their constituencies
Stephen Flynn has reportedly been touring the country to meet his MP colleagues in their constituencies (PA Wire)

Mr Flynn has reportedly been touring the country to meet his MP colleagues in their constituencies, which would help with momentum for any leadership bid.

Mr Flynn also worked as a researcher for an MP and MSP before being elected as the MP for Aberdeen South in 2019.

He has become a prominent figure in Westminster due to his strong calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and has repeatedly sought to exploit Labour divisions over the conflict.

Neil Gray

Neil Gray was elected MSP for Airdrie & Shotts in 2021, having served from 2015 to 2021 as the MP for the same seat in Westminster.

Neil Gray MSP is the health secretary for Scotland
Neil Gray MSP is the health secretary for Scotland (PA)

He was quickly promoted to become minister for culture, Europe and international development under Ms Sturgeon and now has responsibility for NHS recovery, health and social care.

He also began his career as a researcher in Holyrood, having worked as a press and research intern for the SNP parliamentary group.

Jenny Gilruth

Jenny Gilruth was elected to Holyrood in 2016 as MSP for Mid Fife and Glenrothes. Before entering the Scottish parliament, she worked as a modern studies teacher in Edinburgh and later taught humanities at a high school in Dunfermline.

She became culture minister in 2020 and has since served as transport minister and education secretary, a job she has held since last March.

Jenny Gilruth has been touted by some in the party as then next SNP leader
Jenny Gilruth has been touted by some in the party as then next SNP leader (PA)

On Monday she posted on X: “John Swinney is the best choice to be Scotland’s First Minister & the SNP leader. I will be strongly supporting him if, as I hope, he chooses to run.”

She is married to Kezia Dugdale, the former leader of the Scottish Labour Party who was an MSP for Lothian from 2011 to 2019.

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