Nicola Sturgeon: Search for successor begins after Scotland's first minister's surprise resignation

There is no obvious replacement for Nicola Sturgeon, as Louise Scott reports

The race to replace Nicola Sturgeon is underway following the Scottish leader's surprise resignation on Wednesday.

The SNP, which Ms Sturgeon has led for eight years, will meet soon to discuss a timetable for the election of a new leader. She will remain in office until a successor is found.

SNP president Michael Russell said he expected that process to be “shortened” and there to be a “contested election”.

Nominations opened on February 15, and will close a week later on February 24, a ballot will then open at midday on March 13 and will close at noon on March 27.

The National Secretary will make the results of the contest public as soon as the result has been confirmed.

Though there is no obvious candidate to succeed the outgoing first minister, potential candidates include External Affairs Secretary Angus Robertson, Secretary for Finance and Economy Kate Forbes.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney however, will not enter the race to become first minister and leader of the SNP, he has announced.

Mr Swinney, who has been in the Scottish Parliament since 1999 and served as leader between 2000 and 2004, said the decision not to run came after he “thought carefully” about if he should stand and had to be sure what he did was “right for my family, the Scottish National Party and our country”.

Angus Robertson was an early favourite to replace Ms Sturgeon. Credit: PA

SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn had suggested that the party’s planned conference to discuss the next steps in its push for Scottish independence could now be delayed - and this turned out to be the case, with the party confirming it will not take place on March 19 as originally planned.

Nicola Sturgeon had planned to fight the next general election as a de facto referendum on Scottish independence, with party members due to gather to discuss the plan in the coming weeks.

But Mr Flynn said the new leader “should have the opportunity and indeed the space to set out their position, their values and their intentions going forward”.

He added: “I think it’s sensible that we do hit the pause button on that conference and allow the new leader the opportunity to set out their vision.”

Sturgeon waves to members of the public outside Bute House in Edinburgh after announcing her resignation Credit: PA

Ms Sturgeon’s resignation follows a series of political challenges in recent months as her Government sought to push through gender reforms, only for them to be blocked by Westminster.

She insisted the row surrounding a transgender double rapist being sent to a women’s jail “wasn’t the final straw”, but said it is “time for someone else” to lead the party.

Ms Sturgeon acknowledged the “choppy waters”, but insisted her resignation was not in response to the “latest period of pressure”.

“This decision comes from a deeper and longer-term assessment,” the 52-year-old said.

“In my head and in my heart I know that time is now. That it’s right for me, for my party and my country,” she told reporters at Bute House, her official residence.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

The Labour Party mulled over the opportunity Ms Sturgeon’s departure could present it at the next UK-wide election, as winning Scottish constituencies could tip the balance further in its favour at Westminster.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar suggested there was now a belief in Scotland that a UK Labour government was possible for the first time since the party lost power in 2010.

At the same time, he said it would require the party to make “significant gains” in Scotland at the next general election – expected in a little over 12 months – for that to happen.

“For 12 years I don’t think people in Scotland have believed that a Labour UK government was possible. I think that is changing now. I think people believe a UK Labour government is possible,” he told BBC.

Labour’s long-standing stranglehold on Scotland in Westminster elections came to an abrupt end in 2015 when it was all but wiped out in an SNP landslide.

Ms Sturgeon’s exit comes at a fortuitous time for Labour, which is due to hold its party conference this coming weekend.

The Scottish Tories meanwhile had no warm words for the departing First Minister, with the party leader Douglas Ross insisting Ms Sturgeon had “presided over a decade of division and decay in Scotland”.

Mr Ross also rubbished claims that Labour could win across Scotland at the next general election.

He told the BBC’s Newsnight: “Labour currently have one MP in the whole of Scotland, the Conservatives have six. We are the second biggest party at Holyrood, we are the second biggest Scottish party represented at Westminster.

“We are the the clear challengers to the SNP in multiple seats across Scotland.”

The Conservatives at Westminster tried to strike a more cordial tone, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak paying tribute to Ms Sturgeon’s “long-standing service”.

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But his Scottish Secretary, Alister Jack, said her resignation was “a welcome opportunity for the Scottish Government to change course, and to drop its divisive obsession with independence”.

The SNP’s vote share in opinion polls in Scotland has dipped in recent months, though the party remains ahead of its rivals across the board.

While the SNP enjoyed ratings in the high 40s or low 50s for much of the period after the December 2019 election and through the pandemic, in 2022 the figures started to drift downwards, briefly touching 42% in April and 41% in November.

This was paralleled by a rise in support for Labour, whose ratings had hovered around 20% for much of the previous two years, but which began to see an increase from early 2022.

The latest monthly average puts the SNP on 43%, Labour on 30%, the Conservatives on 16% and the Liberal Democrats on 6%.

At the 2019 general election, the SNP won 45% of the vote in Scotland, with the Tories on 25%, Labour on 19% and the Lib Dems on 10%.