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  1. Politics
  2. Scotland
17 February 2023

Who will replace Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader?

We profile the leading candidates to succeed the Scottish First Minister, including Kate Forbes, Angus Robertson and Keith Brown.

By Freddie Hayward and Zoë Grünewald

The race to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader has begun. Candidates will have to convince party members they can win the next election in Scotland and finally achieve its independence.

The field is largely unknown to voters. In a Panelbase poll conducted earlier this month, 69 per cent of Scots said they did not know who should succeed Sturgeon. The most popular choice was Kate Forbes on 7 per cent, followed by John Swinney on 6 per cent, Angus Robertson on 5 per cent and Stephen Flynn on 3 per cent. So who are they?

Angus Robertson

Often considered Sturgeon’s right-hand man, Angus Robertson, 53, led the SNP at Westminster for ten years from 2007-17. As constitution secretary, he worked closely with Sturgeon on the quest for a second referendum. Though he is unpopular with the left of his party, Robertson is an established political player and a well-versed campaigner. But will party members prefer a fresh face to a continuity candidate?

Kate Forbes

The finance secretary, 32, has long been touted as a leading contender to succeed Sturgeon. Forbes, who was appointed to her role at the age of just 29, has an impressive media presence and a reputation for competency. She also has a support base in the SNP grassroots that would be vital to winning the contest. As a member of the Free Church of Scotland, Forbes takes a more conservative stance on social issues which could see the SNP diverge from Sturgeon’s liberal approach. Regardless, Forbes’s recent time away on maternity leave has been keenly felt, as Chris Deerin points out in his piece on why he believes she is the outstanding candidate.

Humza Yousaf

Next up is Humza Yousaf, 37, whose public profile has risen in recent years but not for the reasons he might have wanted. He was thrust into the limelight when he became health secretary in 2021, leading Scotland’s response to Covid-19. But since then he has faced strong criticism for the dismal state of the NHS in Scotland. In his previous role as justice secretary, Yousaf introduced the hate crime bill, which critics argued was detrimental to free speech. He was widely tipped as the favourite for the first ministership before being eclipsed by Forbes. Can he reclaim the top spot?

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Màiri McAllan

Màiri McAllan, 30, is a former special adviser to the First Minister, and an outsider’s bet. But she has an impressive energy that would, as many are already suggesting, make her an excellent SNP leader one day. But with only two years of government experience, this leadership race might be too soon for her.

Keith Brown

The only potential contender with a direct mandate from his party is Keith Brown, 61, the deputy leader of the SNP. Brown won the position in 2018 with 55 per cent of the vote but he did not become deputy first minister despite holding a seat in the Scottish parliament. Sturgeon ensured that John Swinney remained her deputy. Can Brown leverage his position now to boost support for a leadership bid?

Stephen Flynn 

The party’s newly crowned leader at Westminster has quickly gained a reputation for delivering strident speeches at PMQs without notes. He is more bullish than his predecessor, Ian Blackford, and is viewed as keen to distance the SNP’s Westminster operation from Edinburgh. The 34-year-old has been a vocal supporter of the gender recognition reforms that contributed to Sturgeon’s downfall. He told the New Statesman in an interview that the party should “stand firm” on the issue. This will alienate him from some in his party but make him attractive to others. In any case, we know he’s keen to get to Edinburgh. As he noted in his interview with the NS: “Anyone who’s elected for the SNP wants to be in Scotland’s national parliament, which is not in Westminster – it’s in Edinburgh.”

Alas, Flynn has ruled himself out, saying he has “no intention” of standing for leader. He thinks the next first minister will be someone in the Scottish parliament. But “no intention” of standing can still become “after much encouragement from colleagues”… In any case, we will know Flynn is making a bid for leader when he transfers to Holyrood. If he doesn’t stand in this contest, he will probably be a favourite in the next.

Joanna Cherry 

Joanna Cherry, 56, is a controversial figure in the SNP. Cherry, a KC, MP and vocal chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights at Westminster, was a close ally of the party’s former leader Alex Salmond. Her strident opposition to the Gender Recognition Reform Bill made her unpopular with some in the party. Cherry is an outsider in this race, but the role the bill played in Sturgeon’s downfall may yet force party members to reconsider their opinions on her. 

MP Joanna Cherry ruled herself out of the race on 16 February.

John Swinney

Sturgeon’s deputy first minister is a long-standing SNP heavyweight who has held multiple senior roles, including a spell as leader from 2000-04. However, that period is not fondly remembered. Swinney has a bullish manner that some pro-independence MPs may see as valuable for resisting Scottish Labour and leading the independence charge, but equally these qualities could alienate some voters. The real question is whether he would want the role of leader. Swinney will turn 60 next year, and after serving in government for almost a quarter of a decade, taking the reins of a party fighting fraught constitutional arguments may not appeal.

In a statement on 16 February, John Swinney announced that he will not be running to replace Nicola Sturgeon.

What are the next steps?

The timeline for the SNP leadership race was announced on 16 February. Nominations to become Nicola Sturgeon’s successor are now open and will close on 24 February at midday. The ballot will then be open from midday on 13 March until midday on 27 March. The new SNP leader will therefore be announced on Monday 27 March.

This article was originally published on 15 February and has been updated with the latest information.

Read more:

The polling behind Nicola Sturgeon’s fall

What is behind Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation?

Why Nicola Sturgeon was destined for failure

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