John Swinney emerges as frontrunner to be Scotland’s next first minister

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The race to be the next first minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National party has whittled down to two likely candidates as the governing nationalists look set to see off an opposition motion of no confidence on Wednesday.

SNP grandee John Swinney is an early frontrunner to replace Humza Yousaf as party leader and head of the Scottish government. Swinney could face a challenge from Kate Forbes, who came second to Yousaf in last year’s contest.

The SNP administration in Holyrood will be tested on Wednesday by a motion of no confidence brought by Scottish Labour, which is pushing ahead with the vote despite Yousaf saying he would quit.

Yousaf plunged the SNP into crisis last week when he collapsed a coalition deal with the Scottish Greens and sought to continue in office as a minority government. On Monday he resigned after just over a year in post, pending the selection of his successor.

The SNP, which has 63 Holyrood seats, faces a combined opposition of 65 MSPs. It is likely to survive the no-confidence motion with the backing of at least some members of the Scottish Greens party, which has said it would support another SNP first minister if the right candidate was chosen.

Swinney, who has extensive government experience and served as SNP leader between 2000 and 2004 when the party was in opposition, has said he is actively considering standing after receiving many messages from colleagues urging him to run.

Last year he ruled himself out as a successor to Nicola Sturgeon, citing his desire to step back from frontline politics to focus on his family.

The 60-year-old former deputy first minister’s challenger could be ex-finance secretary Forbes, who narrowly lost out to Yousaf in last year’s bitter leadership campaign.

She told BBC Scotland on Tuesday that she was considering a leadership bid, saying she had “groundswell of support” within the party.

Senior SNP figures such as Stephen Flynn and Ian Blackford, the current and former heads of the party’s grouping at Westminster, as well as Keith Brown, deputy SNP leader, have indicated their appreciation of Swinney’s extensive ministerial experience and ability to unify the party.

“John is very difficult to beat,” said one senior SNP figure. “Kate stood and didn’t win already — it wouldn’t be a bad idea for a younger figure to test their standing in the party by running against John — but to stand twice and not win wouldn’t be a good look.”

The SNP, seeking to pivot away from the progressive policies associated with its partnership with the Greens, will hope for a swift process to rebuild stability in the face of a resurgent Labour party targeting multiple Scottish seats held by nationalists in the general election expected this year.

Party figures said Forbes was considering putting her name forward before the deadline for nominations closes on Monday.

The 34-year-old is feared by opponents for her intellect and political nous. But her conservative social and economic views have alienated progressives and damaged her campaign last year. She has received public backing from one of her allies, Fergus Ewing.

Joanna Cherry, an SNP MP known for her gender-critical feminist views, said Swinney was hugely respected but that the party needed a “complete reset”.

“We must go forward not backwards,” she said in a post on X. “Kate was right when she said that continuity would not cut it. The next leader must deliver change.”

The Greens have already indicated their opposition to her candidacy.

The SNP national executive committee is expected to publish a timetable for the election soon.

Several other potential candidates, such as Jenny Gilruth and Neil Gray, have backed Swinney, who is now regarded as the continuity candidate.

The party is likely to push for a truncated contest to avoid the internal damage that resulted from last year’s race, which pitted Yousaf and Forbes against Ash Regan, who has since defected to rival nationalist party Alba.

If only one candidate emerged, a ballot of party members would be avoided.

The strategy to move the policy agenda away from the more radical elements promoted by the Greens remained intact, the SNP figure said.

“Whoever takes over now won’t change the nature of our approach,” he said. “Whether it’s jobs or the economy, that has to be the focus of our government.”

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