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20 February 2023

Kate Forbes emerges as early favourite for SNP leadership

With Angus Robertson, the bookie’s favourite, out of the race, the finance secretary is the frontrunner to replace Nicola Sturgeon.

By Zoë Grünewald

So far three MSPs have announced their intention to run to replace Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the SNP and Scotland’s First Minister: Humza Yousaf, the Scottish health secretary, Ash Regan, a former minister, and Kate Forbes, the finance secretary.

Since Sturgeon announced her resignation last week, there has been plenty of speculation around Sturgeon’s likely successor. Freddie Hayward and I wrote a piece last week listing the runners and riders, but so far many have ruled themselves out of the race, including Keith Brown, Neil Gray, Màiri McAllan, John Swinney, Joanna Cherry, Stephen Flynn, the party’s Westminster leader, and Angus Robertson, the bookie’s favourite.

Robertson had long been seen as Sturgeon’s probable successor, having worked closely with her as constitution secretary in the battle for Scottish independence. He announced he would not be standing today (20 February), citing family commitments.

Forbes, 32, is likely to be the favourite to win now, and came top in a Savanta poll for the Scotsman. She has cut short her maternity leave to enter the leadership contest. Forbes has a broad range of support in the party, and takes an approach somewhere between Yousaf and Regan, being closely aligned with Sturgeon’s administration (as Yousaf is) but diverging on matters such as gender self-identification (an issue over which Regan resigned from the government in October last year). Our Scottish editor, Chris Deerin, interviewed Forbes last year, and attributed her rising star to her political savvy, grasp of complex information and impressive media manner. “Full of passion and ideas, Forbes can switch between wonkish intensity and youthful charm, and is a good speaker,” he wrote.

[See also: Is Kate Forbes’s SNP leadership campaign over already?]

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Forbes has not been immune to criticism, though. In particular, some are concerned that her commitment to her faith, as a member of the Free Church, would indicate more conservative policies. As Deerin wrote, Forbes has avoided saying publicly whether she agreed with the Free Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage, but she did tell him that “Christians need to be as much as part of that debate as anybody else”. Some will read that as a concession that her views could be a considerably less progressive than those of Sturgeon, which the left of the SNP may find hard to accept. Forbes nevertheless remains the most likely candidate.

Yousaf, 37, has been prominent in the SNP for many years, having become an MSP in 2011, and he cited his experience of working in government in his announcement of his candidacy. In many ways Yousaf would be the continuity candidate. He has pledged to continue to fight for gender self-identification in Scotland and would keep the Scottish Greens in coalition government. He worked for and represented Sturgeon’s government right through to her resignation.

Some, however, worry that Yousaf’s record might be his undoing. On Friday Jackie Baillie, the deputy Scottish Labour leader, called Yousaf the “worst health secretary on record”. The NHS in Scotland has faced a particularly difficult winter, grappling with strikes and its worst A&E waiting times. The Savanta poll also showed that he was the least popular of the front-runners among both the public and party voters. Though he would feel like a safe bet for those who want the old regime to continue, some may be concerned that he lacks the heft necessary to lead Scotland to independence and see off the threat from Labour.

Regan’s leadership would be more of a break from Sturgeon’s previous government. She was vocally opposed to the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, quitting her post as community safety minister following its passage through Holyrood. (The bill has since been blocked by Westminster.) There seems to be some opposition to her from the party establishment, and she is seen as the outsider in the race for now. John Swinney, the deputy first minister, called her proposal to give SNPs member who had left the party over the last year a vote in the election “ludicrous” and “preposterous”. Though Regan, 48, may appeal to those within the SNP who want a change from the older regime, some may question whether Regan’s offering leads the SNP too far from the successes of Sturgeon.

Nominations for the leadership contest close this Friday and the winner is expected to be announced on 27 March. As the contest progresses, expect to see Forbes’s candidacy in particular bolstered by her youth, passion and natural proclivity for the media.

Read more:

Could Kate Forbes yet defy the SNP machine and win the leadership?

Who will replace Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader?

Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation marks the end of the feminist moment

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