First candidates announced in contest to replace Nicola Sturgeon

Ash Regan, Scotland’s former community safety minister, and health secretary Humza Yousaf, have announced they are standing in the contest to replace Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the Scottish National Party and first minister.

The two have set off the race to replace Sturgeon, who shocked her party on Wednesday by announcing that she was stepping down from the position she has held since 2014.

Sturgeon is Scotland’s longest serving first minister and the first woman to hold the post. The contest to replace her is expected to focus on the party’s strategy to win independence after her plan to turn the next UK election into a de facto referendum was opposed by many of her own MPs. The SNP has postponed a special conference to discuss the issue until it has chosen the new leader, who will be elected by March 27.

Sturgeon’s replacement will face the challenge of restoring party unity at a time when the Scottish Labour party is showing signs of a resurgence. A
a YouGov poll for the Scottish Election Study, an independent research body, on Friday suggested the party was just two points behind the SNP.

Yousaf has portrayed himself as a unifying figure and an experienced operator in government who Sturgeon had trusted with “some of the toughest jobs”, including justice secretary. He was appointed health secretary in May 2021.

In a video message on Twitter, Yousaf said: “The top job requires someone who has experience.

“I also believe in independence with every fibre of my being . . . I have the skills to reach out across the divide and bring people together.”

In a statement announcing her candidacy, Regan said her first act as leader would be to call a cross-party convention to build a coalition for independence.

She also appeared to endorse Sturgeon’s controversial strategy of using the next general election as de facto vote on Scottish independence.

“If pro-independence parties, with a clear mandate for such actions in their manifestos, have more than 50 per cent +1 of the votes cast in a Westminster or Holyrood election, this will be a clear instruction that Scotland wishes to be an independent nation,” she said.

Regan resigned as minister last year because she was opposed to Sturgeon’s gender reform legislation. Controversy over the bill, which lowered the age at which people could apply for a gender recognition certificate to 16, undermined the first minister’s authority within her party. While it was passed in Holyrood, Westminster blocked it by using a so-called Section 35 order under the Scotland Act.

The Times reported on Sunday that Kate Forbes, cabinet secretary for finance and the economy who is on parental leave, had been endorsed by Jim McMcoll, a leading business figure who was once an economic adviser to the Scottish government.

Forbes and Angus Robertson, constitution secretary and one of the early favourites in the contest, are yet to declare.

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