The decision by Alex Salmond stunned the great and good of Scottish politics. No one, it seemed, saw it coming.
“Like everyone else I am surprised at the news,” said the First Minister. “I am very sorry to hear of the decision,” commented John Swinney.
It was July 2000 and Mr Salmond had resigned as leader of the SNP for the first time. The First Minister was Donald Dewar and Mr Swinney would shortly take on his party’s top job. The Scottish Parliament had yet to celebrate its first birthday.
In the 18 years since, Mr Salmond has not lost his ability to leave even his closest colleagues bewildered. While the decision to stage a talk show at the Edinburgh Fringe festival last year was greeted by many Nationalists with an indulgent smile, his decision to then sell the format to RT, the Russian state-sponsored broadcaster, went down rather less well. Even Nicola Sturgeon, his former deputy, was forced to distance herself from the move.
“I don’t agree with the RT thing, but I would never criticise him,” an SNP source told The Times this week. “Alec needs space to be allowed to do what he wants to do.”
More comebacks then Sinatra?
Mr Salmond is now back in the news for another reason. On Thursday he announced that he would return to frontline politics as soon as Nicola Sturgeon fired the starting gun for a second independence referendum. Addressing activists in the south of Edinburgh, Mr Salmond made what he called a “Morningside declaration” when he suggested he was ready to get back on the indyref campaign trail.
He said the row over the repatriation of EU powers had left the ball on the penalty spot “waiting for Nicola Sturgeon to kick it into the net”.
But does Scottish politics need another Salmond comeback?
Like all things in Scottish politics, how you answer the above question is likely to reflect your opinion on the great constitutional debate. Those who voted No in 2014, and remain committed to the idea of Scotland’s place in the Union, are unlikely to view the prospect of a Salmond return with delight.
A man who enjoys a debate, and never shies away from a political fight, Salmond is a formidable campaigner with more than three decades of experience. He was the driving force that carried the Yes campaign from 30 to 45 per cent in 2014, a considerable achievement.
But, no matter how many SNP activists want one, there is no date for a second independence referendum and no guarantee such an event will even take place before the next Holyrood elections in 2021.
Current polling suggests Nicola Sturgeon is more than capable of leading her party to a historic fourth term in power without the help of her old boss.
Senior Nationalists would also be forgiven for thinking they should be allowed to focus on non-constitutional matters, such as education, which are likely to be raised by opposition parties again and again before polling day, rather than discussing the future of their ex-leader.
Could the former First Minister stand again as an SNP candidate? You wouldn’t bet against it.
Speaking in March, he commented that a return to the top is “unlikely and far fetched”, but added: “I learned a long time ago to never say never in politics.”
Speaking on his LBC Radio phone-in, he said: “If I remember correctly, even Jesus only had a second coming — I don’t think I’m going to have a third coming as SNP leader.”
While the top job may be off limits, would Salmond himself be content to sit on the backbenches? His combative style is suited to the emotive nature of a referendum campaign. However, if no constitutional vote was called, a return to the cabinet could prove irresistible. Whether his former colleagues would want him there is another question.
Whatever his next move is, it’s sure to leave at least some of us surprised.