THE SNP’s longest serving MEP has announced he is standing down at the EU elections, increasing the chances of the party's first female MEP in 20 years.

Ian Hudghton, 67, who has served in Brussels since November 1998, said he was looking forward to a long-planned retirement - and possibly fighting an independence referendum.

His departure means only one of the SNP’s two MEPs, Alyn Smith, will put himself forward as a candidate if, as expected, the elections are held on May 23.

The party must now find five other potential candidates - three women and two men - to make up its six-person regional list.

They will be ranked by delegates to this month’s SNP conference, with only the first two expected to be elected, with the third placed candidate having a fighting chance.

Former environment minister Aileen MacLeod, former MP Margaret Ferrier and Mr Smith’s chief of staff Laura Rayner have expressed an interest in standing.

The only female SNP MEP to date is Winnie Ewing, who served between 1975 and 1999.

Mr Hudghton’s exit follows a row about men dominating the EU poll for the SNP.

Although gender-balanced, the SNP list is not “zipped”, meaning men and women ordered alternately, and Mr Hudghton and Mr Smith had been expected to secure the top two slots.

Nicola Sturgeon said: “Ian Hudghton has championed Scotland's cause in the European Parliament for over 20 years, I am sorry to see him go.

“Ian has been a passionate advocate for what the EU is and does for Scotland, and proved himself a first-class parliamentarian. I wish him every success in the future.”

In a letter to the SNP’s ruling body, Mr Hudghton said: “After a great deal of thought, I have decided that I do not wish my name to be included in the selection process for SNP candidates for the European Parliamentary Elections, possibly being held in May.

“During the past couple of years, with Brexit looming, the prospect of retirement from my MEP role has become an active consideration.

“I look forward to having more time available for family and home.

“The current five year term of the European Parliament will end on 1st July and I will remain a Member until that date, unless an earlier date for Brexit is agreed.”

He went on: “I did not join the SNP as a career plan, but it has been an immense privilege to represent the SNP in the EP for more than 20 very eventful years.

“I am certain that Scotland is now closer to Independence than ever.

“To be sure of winning the next referendum on Independence we will have to maximise the number of Independence conversations we have on the doorsteps with voters in every community.

“I look forward to participating in the ongoing campaign to build and solidify the support and momentum that we will need to win the next referendum on Independence, whenever it is held.”

Mr Hudghton joined the SNP in 1967, served as an Angus councillor in the 1980s and 1990s.

He has been SNP president since 2005, a role previously held by Mrs Ewing.