Humza Yousaf says he is giving “serious consideration” to an SNP leadership bid following the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon.
The health secretary said he would make his intention to run for First Minister known in the coming days, despite intense scrutiny over his record in his current role.
Sturgeon announced she was standing down at a surprise press conference at Bute House on Wednesday.
Yousaf received his first cabinet post from the outgoing FM when he was made justice minister in 2018 before being shifted to the health brief in 2021.
He paid tribute to Sturgeon’s work in “putting Scotland first,” but did not rule out running to replace her in the top job.
It comes after deputy FM John Swinney ruled himself out of the contest, citing the need for “fresh ideas” in driving forward the party’s bid for Scottish independence.
Yousaf said he had received “really encouraging” support from some members of the party, though added he had not yet made a final decision on his leadership attempt.
“I’m giving it serious consideration and that is right because it is the biggest job in the country,” he told STV News.
“I’m also thinking about my family, I have a wife and two kids and I’m devoted to them and if I did go for it and did have the honour of being in that position, obviously it would have an impact on them.
“I will make my intentions known in the coming days.”
Yousaf has faced criticism from opposition parties for his health record, with accident and emergency departments recording their worst ever waiting time statistics this winter and problems such as delayed discharge also increasing.
However, he said “healthy relationships” had been built with Scotland’s NHS workforce during the course of pay rise negotiations.
He added that Scotland was the only part of the UK to be unaffected by strike action within the service, adding the country’s A&E wait time record – while below target – continued to outstrip that of England, Northern Ireland and Wales.
“Scotland is the only part of the UK that has averted strike action from nurses, from ambulance staff; that is not by accident, that is because I have built up relationships with our trade union colleagues in good faith,” he said.
“There are problems affecting every health service in the UK. There is not a health service anywhere in the UK that has not been affected by the pandemic to the extent where they see lengthy waiting times in A&E or elective care. Scotland is not immune to that.
“The worst of the winter that has just passed over the course of the festive period I think was the most challenging few weeks the health service has ever had in entire existence, I hope to never go there ever again and be in that position ever again.
“So we will do everything we can to shore up our health service to deal with the challenges of the winter for next year.”
Finance secretary Kate Forbes, who is currently on maternity leave, and constitution secretary Angus Robertson are also among the early favourites for the role.
But Swinney, who led the party for four years between 2000 and 2004, said he was only interested in “creating fresh space for new ideas to flourish,” rather than succeeding Sturgeon at Holyrood.
“I’d held this office many years ago and I actually thought about this more than I thought I would actually consider it,” he said.
“I was quite overwhelmed by the level of support that had been indicated to me by colleagues to step forward.
“But I think the SNP movement, particularly because of the intransigence of the UK Government on the constitutional question, that we need to think openly about how we take our next steps forward and for that reason, I think we need fresh prospective and we need people like me to create the space to enable that fresh prospective to come forward.”