HEALTH Secretary Alex Neil has backed Keith Brown to become the new deputy leader of the SNP, saying he would be an “able lieutenant” to Nicola Sturgeon, who is widely expected to become Scotland’s first female first minister next month.
With Ms Sturgeon giving up her position as deputy leader as she bids to succeed Alex Salmond as both First Minister and SNP leader, a contest is on to fill the position in the party.
Three candidates have so put their names forward - Mr Brown, the transport and veterans minister, Angela Constance, the Training, Youth and Women’s Employment Secretary at Holyrood, and Stewart Hosie, who is the SNP’s Treasury spokesman at Westminster.
Both Mr Neil - who is the first member of the Scottish cabinet to endorse a candidate - and public health minister Michael Matheson want to see Mr Brown take on the role.
Mr Neil said: “When I was Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment, Keith was in my ministerial team as transport, housing and veterans minister.
“I’ve seen first-hand how capable he is as a minister and as a politician. He clearly has the experience and ability to be number two to the new party leader.”
While the Health Secretary said he had the “highest respect” for Mr Hosie and Ms Constance, he added: “Keith Brown is my pick for depute leader of the SNP, his political instinct is second to none and his organisational ability is top-notch.
“As a ministerial colleague he has proven himself more than capable and his commitment, dedication and hard work are exemplary.
“Nicola Sturgeon will need a fearless and able deputy to stand beside her during the Smith Commission proceedings and the changes that the SNP will have to undergo to accommodate the thousands of new members we have now.
“I have total confidence in the reliability and integrity of Keith Brown; he’ll make an excellent depute and will be an able lieutenant to Nicola.”
The Smith Commission is examining what new powers should be transferred to Holyrood in the wake of the promise made by Westminster leaders in the run-up to the referendum that there would be further devolution.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands joined the SNP in the two weeks after the vote, with the party’s membership now exceeding 75,000.
Mr Matheson said: “The referendum and the incredible aftermath brings some great opportunities and some challenges for the SNP in the coming years, and the party will have to adapt and change to take account of them.
“I’ve seen Keith’s first proposals on engaging with the new members and his proposals for a Youth Academy to encourage our younger members, and I’m impressed.
“He’s the one candidate who has said that new members should have the right to be part of selecting our candidates for May’s UK general election and he’s the one thinking about how we should be going forward.
“I trust his judgment and his political instincts; he’s the candidate I believe can take the SNP forward, I’m pleased to support his bid for depute leader.”
Mr Brown, who already has the backing of external affairs minister Humza Yousaf, said: “It’s fantastic to get the support of the public health minister and the Cabinet Secretary for Health - I’m delighted to have such healthy support.
“These are two very able ministerial colleagues who I respect and work well with, and it’s great to know that they’re on board with my campaign.”
He added: “We’re looking forward rather than back, bringing the 50,000 new members of the SNP into alliance with the pre-referendum membership and continuing the Yes alliance to work in Scotland’s interests.
“We’ve also got to be reaching out to the 55 per cent who voted No last month and seeing where we have common ground, and how we can work with them in the long-term interests of the country.”