Scotland’s new first minister promises to reach out to opposition

John Swinney’s erstwhile SNP leadership rival Kate Forbes is expected to be brought back into the cabinet

John Swinney with his wife Elizabeth Quigley on Tuesday on the steps the official residence of the Scotland's first minister, Bute House in Edinburgh. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

John Swinney will be sworn in as Scotland’s new first minister on Wednesday after his nomination passed a vote on Tuesday of the members of the devolved parliament in Holyrood.

Mr Swinney, who replaces Humza Yousaf, became the new leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) on Monday after no other candidates entered the race to succeed the outgoing leader, who quit last week in advance of a confidence vote called by the opposition.

On Tuesday, Mr Yousaf sent his formal resignation to Britain’s King Charles, following which Mr Swinney was nominated as his successor.

The leaders in Scotland of the three unionist parties in Holyrood, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, all put themselves forward to be first minister in a vote in parliament. Although the SNP is two seats short of a majority, Mr Swinney emerged with the most votes, clearing the way for his formal appointment at the Court of Session in Edinburgh on Wednesday morning.

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Attention will shift in the afternoon to the cabinet reshuffle that Mr Swinney is expected to implement. Kate Forbes, the former finance secretary who has sat on the backbenches since losing a bitter leadership contest with Mr Yousaf last year, is expected to return to a frontline role.

Ms Forbes, a social conservative who is also seen as one of the most capable politicians in the party, was widely viewed as Mr Swinney’s biggest rival for the leadership when Mr Yousaf quit. She considered making a leadership bid during a period of high drama in Scottish politics last week, but decided to stand aside and back Mr Swinney after talks between the two. He has promised her a “significant role” in his government.

Mr Swinney, a party veteran who was previously SNP leader two decades ago, has promised to unite the party after a fractious 14 months since the resignation of former leader Nicola Sturgeon, who has since become embroiled in a financial scandal. After 17 years in power, the SNP’s support has also slipped in the polls with Labour resurgent north of the Scottish border with England.

In a Holyrood speech during the debate to confirm his nomination as first minister, Mr Swinney acknowledged that as leader of a minority administration, he will need to “reach out to others to make things happen”.

He praised Labour and the Liberal Democrats on Tuesday for their governance of Scotland during the early years of devolution in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He also praised the Conservative Party for its role in opposition.

In a sign that Alex Salmond’s nationalist Alba party may also be prepared to back him on certain issues, it appeared its sole member of parliament, Ash Regan, voted for Mr Swinney in the first minister vote.

Mr Yousaf ended the SNP’s previous government arrangement with the Scottish Greens, whom many in the SNP blame for dragging the government to the left with policies unpopular with some voters. The Scottish Greens abstained in the vote for first minister, but indicated they may back Mr Swinney on individual policies on a case-by-case basis.

Mark Paul

Mark Paul

Mark Paul is London Correspondent for The Irish Times