Nicola Sturgeon resignation: John Curtice on who could be next leader of SNP and Scotland’s First Minister

Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation has sent shockwaves through Scottish politics but who could replace her as SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland?

Tensions and divisions within the SNP could become exposed following the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon as leader, according to a leading political scientist.

At a press conference earlier today (15 February) Sturgeon, who has been Scotland’s First Minister for more than eight years, said her resignation was the best move for the Scottish independence movement – but also that the “brutality” of the job has taken its toll on her. She said she had asked the National Secretary to begin the process of electing her successor and would continue in the role until a new SNP leader was elected.

One of the most influential Scottish politicians of the devolution era, Sturgeon’s resignation has sent shockwaves through Scottish politics, with discussion quickly moving onto who will replace her.

Nicola Sturgeon has announced she will resign at First Minister of Scotland.Nicola Sturgeon has announced she will resign at First Minister of Scotland.
Nicola Sturgeon has announced she will resign at First Minister of Scotland.

It could be a rocky road to finding her replacement, however, with the party and voters already split on how it should pursue Scottish independence. Sturgeon had previously said the next general election would be a de facto vote on independence, a move not wholeheartedly welcomed by voters on both sides of the movement.

The divisions have generally been kept under control, but Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University and senior research fellow at the Scottish Centre for Social Research, said “tensions and divisions could become exposed” as the party’s independence strategy falls under the spotlight once again.

However, it could still go in the opposite direction, with a new leader uniting the party and being able to increase support for IndyRef2. “The balls are up in the air and we don’t know how they are going to land,” he said.

Who will be the next SNP leader?

“It depends how popular the leader is and if they can unite the party. And the problem is – they are [largely] all unknowns,” Prof Curtice told NationalWorld. “The only one who isn’t unknown is John Swinney and I assume he won’t stand because he’s been there, done that and we know he can’t do it. He’s a brilliant deputy but he’s just not the person.”

Swinney was SNP leader between 2000 and 2004 and currently sits as Sturgeon’s deputy.

“The two most obvious contenders are Kate Forbes but she’s on maternity leave and the other is Angus Robertson who was SNP Westminster leader but he hasn’t made much of a splash since coming back to Holyrood,” the pollster said.

Sturgeon had barely finished her resignation speech when the frontrunners set to be her replacement were already being announced. There have been no public declarations yet, however Robertson has become the early favourite, according to bookmakers.

The polling expert said another potential contender, Humza Yousaf, Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, is “ambitious” and “articulate” but said he wasn’t sure if he had the ability to appeal to the wider public.


SNP MPs at Westminster look to be out of the running too because the First Minister is required to be a Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) which rules out SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn.

Prof Curtice said: “Some people have been looking at Stephen Flynn and seeing his performance at PMQs but he’s in the wrong place.”

Could it be Kate Forbes?

“The question mark is whether Kate Forbes could do it or not,” Prof Curtice said. “Her reputation rests on the fact that within 24 hours notice she delivered the Budget. She’s a clever cookie, she can appeal to the Gaelic speaking community, etc. It’ll be interesting to see where she stands on the Gender Recognition Bill (GRB), given her religious position.”

Forbes is a member of the Free Church of Scotland. The 32-year-old has been the MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch since 2016 and became Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy in 2020. She recently welcomed her first child and is on maternity leave.

“It’s a hell of a thing to take on personally with a child in a constituency in Skye.”