NICOLA Sturgeon last night stood on the brink of becoming Scotland’s first woman First Minister as senior SNP colleagues declared that they would not be challenging her bid to lead the party.
Health Secretary Alex Neil publicly backed Sturgeon, saying that she was “absolutely the right person for the job”.
Neil spoke out as several other potential leadership candidates announced they would not be putting themselves forward to replace Alex Salmond, who resigned on Friday hours after Scots voted decisively against independence.
Education Secretary Mike Russell, Finance Secretary John Swinney, and Roseanna Cunningham, the community safety minister and a previous leadership contender, said they would not be standing.
However, the external affairs minister Humza Yousaf, who is highly rated by Salmond, refused to rule himself out of standing against Sturgeon when contacted by Scotland on Sunday.
Neil had been tipped as one of the most likely potential challengers in the Scottish Government’s Cabinet. A leadership bid by Neil would have attracted support from the fundamentalist wing of the SNP which in the past has been critical of Salmond for taking a gradualist approach to securing more powers in a devolved settlement.
Sturgeon’s bid to succeed Salmond after his resignation received a boost when Neil told Scotland on Sunday: “I am not standing. I will support Nicola. I think it is time we had a woman First Minister. She is absolutely the right person for the job to succeed.”
Neil added that he doubted that anyone would challenge her, a remark that backed up suggestions that her elevation to First Minister would be a “coronation”.
Neil’s intervention came amid speculation about the SNP leadership as the party tries to pick itself up from defeat in Thursday’s referendum when 55 per cent of the electorate rejected their bid for Scottish independence.
With Sturgeon looking as though she is a shoo-in as First Minister, many in the SNP believe there will be a more meaningful contest for the position of her deputy.
A ticket of Sturgeon and Derek Mackay, the youthful local government minister, would be attractive to many members. Others tipped for the deputy post include Yousaf, Angela Constance, the Cabinet Secretary for Women’s Unemployment, and the MEP Alyn Smith.
Contenders from the old guard include; energy minister Fergus Ewing; the party’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson; Richard Lochhead, the Rural Affairs Secretary who is popular within the party; and Keith Brown, the Falklands veteran who has been a highly regarded transport minister.
Yousaf did not rule himself out of either the deputy leadership or leadership of the SNP.
“I won’t be commenting other than to say that there is plenty of talent in the ranks,” Yousaf said. When asked if he would rule out standing in either position, Yousaf said: “No, I just won’t be commenting.”
Russell said he had “no intention” of standing, while Swinney was equally unequivocal when he said there “absolutely no circumstances” in which he would stand.
Some had thought that Cunningham, who has had a difficult relationship with Sturgeon in the past, might throw her hat in the ring in an attempt to block the Deputy First Minister’s rise to the top.
Cunningham stood for the leadership against Salmond in 2004 when the First Minister stood from Westminster to take over the party for a second time. Salmond defeated Cunningham after Sturgeon entered the race by standing on a joint ticket with Salmond, who was then still an MP in the House of Commons.
The arrangement was that Sturgeon would lead the party at Holyrood, while Salmond was still an MP.
Sturgeon’s intervention a decade ago left a bitter taste in Cunningham’s mouth. But asked yesterday if she would run against her old rival, Cunningham replied: “No.”
Later a spokesman for Cunningham released a statement saying: “Roseanna wants to make it quite clear that she has absolutely no intention or desire to stand for either the leadership or the deputy leadership of the party”
During his shock resignation announcement at Bute House on Friday, Salmond said he would not be endorsing anyone to succeed him. But it is no secret that he is an admirer of Sturgeon, with whom he formed a highly effective political partnership.
But as SNP politicians rested at home and licked their wounds after referendum defeat, there was still the possibility that someone might break out and campaign for the leadership.
In the event of a challenge, the leader would be elected in a one-member-one-vote ballot of the 30,486-strong SNP membership.
No matter who mounts a challenge, it is extremely unlikely that Sturgeon will be foiled for the leadership.
One senior SNP politician said: “Everyone is agreeing with the consensus that it is going to be Nicola. It is not going to be anybody else.”
Sturgeon was last night tight-lipped on the prospect. She has yet to formally declare that she will run for the job. However, her statement reacting to Salmond’s departure said that she could think of “no greater privilege to seek to lead the party” she joined when she was 16.
The deputy leader would be elected on the same one member one vote basis, with the results likely to be unveiled at the party conference in November.
After the devastation of Thursday’s defeat and the shock of Salmond’s resignation the following day, for many planning the succession was for another day.
Another SNP MSP said: “I am trying not to think about it, because I feel so sore for Alex.
“It is a bit raw at the moment. I’m just keen to respect Alex and give everyone a bit of space.”