Deputy first minister John Swinney has announced his backing for Humza Yousaf to replace Nicola Sturgeon.
Swinney said Yousaf had the ability to strengthen the party “as a force for progressive change”.
The backing has been declared a massive boost for Yousaf’s campaign as he competes against Kate Forbes and Ash Regan to replace Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland.
Swinney, the most senior member of the SNP to give his backing to a leadership candidate, announced his support ahead of voting opening to SNP members on Monday.
It comes after senior party figures, including the Westminster leadership team of Stephen Flynn and Mhairi Black, also gave Yousaf their endorsement.
However, supporters of Kate Forbes, Yousaf’s leadership rival, said the “11th hour” intervention from Swinney gave “the sense that senior figures in the party have seen the polls and are absolutely panicking”.
Announcing his support, Swinney said: “For the last 40 years, I’ve had the privilege to be supported by members to serve at the heart of the Scottish National Party and our SNP Government.
“I am so proud of what we have achieved in Government, transforming the lives of people in Scotland, and as a party we have never been closer to winning independence.
“We now need to choose an SNP leader who will complete our journey to independence, and I believe that person should be Humza Yousaf.
“Humza is best placed to lead our party because he will strengthen the SNP as a force for progressive change in Scottish politics.”
Swinney, who announced he would step down as Scotland’s longest-serving deputy first minister, said Yousaf would “govern effectively” and continue the partnership with the Scottish Green Party to “guarantee a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament”.
He added: “Humza will widen our support in attracting new supporters to Scottish Independence.
“Humza is an experienced Minister who’s done all the tough stuff that you have to do day in day out within Government.
“He’s put his heart and soul into all the work he’s done within the party to make the SNP an inclusive political party.
“So for me, John Swinney, it has to be Humza.”
Yousaf welcomed the endorsement and said: “I am honoured to have the backing of a true giant of the SNP and independence movement, John Swinney, to become SNP leader.
“Like Nicola, our party owes so much of our success to John’s stewardship.
“John’s backing is a massive boost to my progressive grassroots campaign to stand up for Scottish democracy, protect and advance rights, unite our Yes movement and secure independence for Scotland.
“When voting opens tomorrow, it is essential to make me your number one choice for SNP leader to build a more progressive, more equal and more inclusive Scotland.”
However, the move was criticised from those within the office of leadership rival Kate Forbes.
Supporter Michelle Thomson MSP said: “When the current Deputy First Minister decides to personally intervene in the leadership contest at such a late stage, you get the sense that senior figures in the party have seen the polls and are absolutely panicking.
“Given how close we are to the vote opening, many party members will look upon this 11th hour intervention rather cynically. They don’t need to be told by party HQ what to think or how to vote.”
She added: “It increasingly looks like the top brass would much prefer an establishment transfer of power – to carry on with the status quo – rather than allowing our membership the freedom to make a healthy democratic choice.
“I certainly trust our members to be independent-minded and firmly believe they can make their own minds up on who best serves the party, the country and – crucially – can deliver independence for Scotland. There is no doubt in my mind that that leader is Kate Forbes.”
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