SNP Leadership Contest – Who is running, who isn’t, and what happens next?

The Scottish National Party are holding their first fully contested leadership election in nearly twenty years following the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon as party leader last week. As the runners and riders begin to set out their pitches, we can expect an intriguing yet bitterly fought race. What are the latest developments and implications for Scottish politics?

Who is running?

Three (so far). The first two off the traps were Cabinet Secretary for Health Humza Yousaf MSP and former Minister for Community Safety Ash Regan MSP who announced their candidacies in the Sunday Mail. Yousaf stated his experience made him ideally suited to run the country and has already been backed by three Scottish Government Ministers (Michael Matheson, Neil Gray and Maree Todd), three MSPs (Joe FitzPatrick, Graeme Day and Karen Adam) as well as two MPs (Chris Law and Anne McLaughlin). Regan, an outsider in this contest, has sought to distinguish herself through pledging to scrapping controversial Gender Recognition Reforms and claiming a pro-indy majority at a Westminster or Holyrood election should be enough to trigger independence negotiations, has been supported by Joanna Cherry MP.

Who isn’t?

The Deputy First Minister John Swinney MSP, a former SNP leader, was the first of the bookies’ favourites to declare he wouldn’t be entering the fray. Keith Brown MSP, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Neil Gray MSP, Minister for Culture, and Mairi McAllan MSP, a rising star of the SNP and Minister for the Environment, also said they wouldn’t run. However, Keith Brown will remain as Depute Leader of the SNP. High-profile Westminster MPs including Joanna Cherry and Stephen Flynn ruled themselves out during earlier rounds of speculation. This morning, Angus Robertson MSP, the Cabinet Secretary for Constitution and External Affairs, released a statement saying “as the father of two young children the time is not right for me and my family to take on such a huge commitment”.

Who is still to declare?

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance Kate Forbes MSP became the latest to declare as of this morning in a slick video and will return from maternity leave to take forward her campaign. She has already been endorsed by the Minister for Business Ivan McKee MSP, as well as by the Leader of the Alba Party Alex Salmond. At the moment, bar any surprises, it is looking like a three-horse race between Forbes, Yousaf and Regan.

What are SNP parliamentarians past and present saying?

The contest has already witnessed ‘yellow on yellow’ attacks. Firebrand MP Mhairi Black warned her party against shifting to the right in a coded attack against Kate Forbes. Meanwhile, former Minister Marco Biagi also criticised Forbes over her alleged views on abortion and same sex marriage. Former Cabinet Secretary for Health Jeane Freeman, who stood down in 2021, told ‘self-indulgent’ colleagues to ‘grow up’ on BBC Scotland’s The Sunday Show, a sentiment also echoed by former SNP Westminster Leader Ian Blackford MP. The once solid discipline of the SNP has shown further cracks – views were also exchanged between Joanna Cherry MP and Pete Wishart MP on social media, with Cherry calling Wishart “an old has been”.

Main policy issues in the contest

The main policy battlegrounds are likely to be the tactics and methods towards securing a second independence referendum, and to a lesser extent, views concerning Gender Recognition Reform. Regarding the former, the SNP have postponed their special conference on their independence referendum policy, with this instead expected to be held in May/June 2023.

What happens next?

Nominations close this week. Candidates have until Friday to receive more than the threshold of 100 nominations from at least 20 local branches. If there is no coronation, SNP members will be able to have their say in a ballot between 13 and 27 March. This means that we could have a new First Minister by the end of next month: the SNP Leader will then have to elected as First Minister during a vote of all MSPs in the Scottish Parliament. After that, expect a ministerial reshuffle and possible changes to Scottish Government policy. There may also be implications for the ‘Cooperation Agreement’ with the Scottish Greens depending on who wins.