Nicola Sturgeon’s quitting. Who could replace her as Scotland’s leader?

Nicola Sturgeon’s quitting. Who could replace her as Scotland’s leader?
Опубликовано: Wednesday, 15 February 2023 14:33

There’s no obvious successor to the Scottish first minister — but plenty of contenders and pretenders

Nicola Sturgeon’s sudden exit as Scottish first minister and leader of the pro-independence SNP stunned her allies — and leaves a wide open field of hopefuls vying to succeed her.

Sturgeon said Wednesday that she had asked the party’s top brass to “begin the process of electing a new party leader” in the coming days. The SNP is, she insisted, “awash with talented individuals” who could fill her shoes — though she declined to name any.

The departing first minister has dominated the top of the SNP and Scottish politics for almost two decades, first as deputy leader to her mentor-turned-nemesis Alex Salmond, and then as leader since 2014.

She’s largely eclipsed the rest of the SNP’s top team, and leaves no obvious successor. Indeed, recent polling for the Sunday Times found “don’t know” was the resounding favorite for next leader, on 69 percent.

Here’s a guide to the contenders and pretenders as Sturgeon prepares to depart.

Kate Forbes

The Scottish finance secretary will be in pole position — if she wants it.

Currently on maternity leave until April, Kate Forbes’ interest in the top job has been the subject of much debate since her sudden elevation to Sturgeon’s Cabinet back in 2020.

That followed the resignation of scandal-hit predecessor Derek Mackay, and saw Forbes, 32, forced to deliver the Scottish government’s budget announcement at hours’ notice. But the move cemented her status as a rising star from the SNP’s post-Sturgeon-and-Salmond generation.

In the years since, Forbes’ handling of the tricky economy brief has earned her admirers.

“Kate Forbes is the person that is most capable, she has a great grasp of her subject matter and she knows the Scottish economy. She’d come with a different set of ideas to Nicola Sturgeon,” one former senior SNP adviser said, pointing to her as a more “centrist” politician than the departing Scottish FM.

Despite this, she has denied any interest in the top role. In late 2020, Forbes gave a categorical “no” when asked by POLITICO in 2020 if she would ever want to be first minister.

A series of glowing media profiles — including one in the Sunday Times that cited a “source close to” her saying she had not ruled out standing — could encourage her to reconsider. Polling in the same newspaper also flagged Forbes’ position as the front-runner (albeit behind top contender “don’t know”) in a largely anonymous field.

And yet Forbes’ differing views to Sturgeon on a key culture wars issue — the Scottish government’s bid to ease gender recognition laws — could pose difficulties in a leadership contest.

Though Forbes — a devout Christian — never publicly voted or spoke against the Scottish government’s gender reforms, she was among a handful of SNP lawmakers to sign a letter expressing their concerns about the legislation back in 2019 and has avoided offering full-throated backing to the plans.

Angus Robertson

As one of Sturgeon’s closest allies and a nationalist veteran present during the SNP’s rise to power, Angus Robertson has long been thought of as a potential future leader.

Once the party’s chief in Westminster, Sturgeon immediately gave Robertson the constitutional affairs brief when he returned to elected office in the 2021 election to Scotland’s devolved parliament at Holyrood.

As part of that brief, the 53-year-old has become a familiar presence in Brussels and some European capitals, leading the SNP’s efforts to win favor and friends in the EU.

Some in the SNP worry he isn’t exciting enough — though he’s seen as a safe option.

One SNP MP described him as “like an SNP leader from central casting,” while another MP from the same party said they’re “not sure he’s as popular as he thinks he is.”

While Robertson is widely expected to run in the leadership election, some doubt remains.

“I’m a happy father of two extremely young children and that is what is taking up a lot of my time, effort and focus,” Robertson told POLITICO in an interview in late 2022. A close friend, speaking before Sturgeon quit, said at the time that Robertson wasn’t interested in the job.

Stephen Flynn

The timing of Sturgeon’s departure will work against the SNP’s latest star.

34-year-old Stephen Flynn’s rapid rise to become SNP leader at the Westminster parliament was as swift as it was unwelcome for Sturgeon’s top team, who did not want their ally, the former Westminster leader Ian Blackford, to be deposed.

The ambitious Flynn has added new admirers to his current coterie of allies, largely made up of the SNP’s often-ignored Westminster lawmakers, with a no-nonsense style at the weekly prime minister questions’ grilling of Tory Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in the House of Commons.

One of those lawmakers described him as “not unconfident about his own abilities.”

However, as an MP and not an MSP (member of the Scottish parliament) Flynn could currently only replace Sturgeon as SNP leader — and not as Scotland’s first minister.

He also remains something of a divisive figure in the SNP, largely due to the nature of Blackford’s exit. Flynn disputes that he had any role in forcing out the former Westminster chief.

Flynn also denies any current interest in the top job, claiming “that’s not something that’s crossed my mind,” in an interview with POLITICO at the start of the month.

“I’ve got some wonderful colleagues in Holyrood,” he added, naming “Angus Robertson, Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Màiri McAllan” as “phenomenal political orators and politicians in their own right.”

“They’ve got a big future ahead of them,” he said.

John Swinney

If the SNP is looking for a safe pair of hands to ease the transition to its next generation, Sturgeon’s trusted number two could become an attractive option.

John Swinney, as deputy first minister, has effectively acted as Sturgeon’s fixer during her nine years in government.

Initially finance minister, Swinney has also held the difficult briefs of education and pandemic recovery during his time in Sturgeon’s government. He returned to the finance job to fill in for Forbes during her current maternity leave.

Swinney has already served as SNP leader, heading up the party for four years during a difficult period in the early 2000s.

Senior party figures worried about life after Sturgeon might be tempted to persuade him to return.

Neil Gray

Described as a decent “outside bet,” by one SNP MP, Neil Gray could become a serious contender if no front-runner emerges.

Another member of the SNP’s next generation, Gray swapped his seat in Westminster for a Holyrood one in 2021 — sparking whispers about his ambition for higher office.

Gray is seen as an assured media performer and has impressed colleagues both in Westminster and Holyrood. He currently serves as the minister for culture and Europe, after steering the Scottish government’s Ukrainian refugees program.

Other outside bets

The current environment minister and former special adviser to Sturgeon Màiri McAllan is seen as a potential future SNP leader, though — with less than two years of experience as an MSP — the current vacancy may come too early.

Sturgeon loyalist Humza Yousaf was once seen as a likely contender, but a tricky few years of running Scotland’s beleaguered NHS as health minister have dented his credentials.

Rebel MP Joanna Cherry, one of Sturgeon’s harshest SNP critics, could launch an unlikely pitch as a candidate offering to ditch the party’s contentious gender reforms. Cherry lacks support from outside the party’s fringes, however.

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