• Alex Neil endorses Alex Salmond's leadership bid but backs left-winger Christine Grahame for deputy
• Key factor for Neil was Salmond's 'left of centre' manifesto
• Neil did not run for leader after Salmond said he would not work with him
Key quote: "I support the social democratic values he [Alex Salmond] is putting forward in his manifesto. He is the best-placed candidate to unite the party and he is best placed to maximise the SNP vote." Alex Neil
Story in full: THE SNP leadership contest took a dramatic twist last night when one of Alex Salmond’s arch-rivals publicly backed his candidacy.
Alex Neil, a long-time adversary from the fundamentalist wing of the party, stunned his colleagues by describing Mr Salmond as the best-placed candidate to unite the party.
However, in a blow to Mr Salmond’s bid to lead the SNP on a joint ticket with Nicola Sturgeon as his deputy, Mr Neil said he would be supporting her rival, the left-winger Christine Grahame.
Mr Neil’s astonishing intervention raises the worrying prospect for Mr Salmond that he could win the leadership election with ease, yet be stripped of his chosen candidate for deputy leader.
Last night, John Curtice, the professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said opposition parties would have a field day if the party endorsed Mr Salmond but rejected his running mate.
"It would be open season on the SNP, as far as the opposition were concerned. Mr Salmond wants Ms Sturgeon in Holyrood as his deputy because he can trust her. Things would be different if someone else was in the role," he said.
However, Prof Curtice said it made perfect sense for the fundamentalist wing to vote to split the joint ticket. "They will be sending Mr Salmond a message that he is only their leader because they put him there. It enhances their position."
The declaration by Mr Neil, who had been expected to back the ideologically similar Roseanna Cunningham, was made all the more surprising because he and Mr Salmond have been enemies for years.
Only weeks ago, Mr Neil was himself expected to throw his hat into the ring for the leadership, but he decided not to do so after Mr Salmond declared he would not work with him.
Mr Neil said a key factor in his decision was the content of Mr Salmond’s left-of-centre manifesto, which included the abolition of student loans, a trust for public investment to fund major infrastructure projects, a written constitution for Scotland and lowering the voting age to 16.
"I support the social democratic values he is putting forward in his manifesto. He is the best-placed candidate to unite the party and he is best placed to maximise the SNP vote," said Mr Neil.
When pressed on how he could support someone who had damaged his own chances of a leadership bid, Mr Neil replied: "I am not going to hold any grudges. I want to let bygones be bygones. We all need to work together for the future of the party."
His comments echoed those made by Mr Salmond last week, when he pledged to bring other leading figures in the party back into the fold.
"There’ll be no recrimination, no past history," he said. "Everybody starts from day one. I think that’s how it should be, because that is the obligation of leadership."
Mr Salmond welcomed Mr Neil’s endorsement. "I never admit to surprise, but I welcome the support," he said. "I had not thought about this, but I welcome backing from all quarters."
He rejected the idea that Ms Sturgeon’s chance of becoming the deputy leader could be at risk. "We are out on the campaign trail together and we are getting a very positive message from members of the party. It is the right way forward for the SNP," he said.