John Swinney is set to become SNP leader and First Minister as his potential rival Kate Forbes ruled herself out of the race this afternoon.

Announcing his leadership bid this morning, Mr Swinney said he was a "stronger and tougher" character than in 2004 when he was forced to stand down as SNP leader following poor results at the European elections that year.

The former deputy first minister was the first candidate to put himself forward for the positions of SNP leader and First Minister following Humza Yousaf's decision to announce his resignation from the roles on Monday.

It had been thought that Ms Forbes may stand again after being defeated in 2023 by Mr Yousaf but a 2pm a statement from the former finance secretary said she was not entering the race and was backing Mr Swinney.

READ MORE: Kate Forbes rules herself out of SNP leadership contest

She indicated she had listened to his speech this morning and his "vision" aligned with the one she had set out last year in the contest.

"I have listened very carefully to the vision John Swinney set out this morning for Scotland," she said.

"What emerged was that we share a powerful common purpose for the country. That includes a passion to revitalise our party, reach out to those who feel disempowered and reinvigorate the independence movement.

The Herald: SNP MSP John Swinney speaking to government advisers Ewan Crawford and Colin McAllister (right) at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, after he became the first candidate to declare his bid to become the new leader of the SNP and Scotland's next first minister. Photo PA.

"It also includes an understanding that economic growth and tackling poverty must again be key priorities, and that a just transition to ‘net zero’ must work with, and not against, our communities and businesses.

"But more than that, John is clear that he is determined to return the SNP to governing from the mainstream. Competent, candid government earning the trust of the people.

"That was the vision I offered in the last leadership contest, and is evidently demanded by the Scottish public." 

READ MORE: John Swinney announces bid for SNP leadership

READ MORE: Will SNP pick yesterday’s man to fight tomorrow's battles?

She added: "I have concluded that the best way to deliver the urgent change Scotland needs is to join with John Swinney and advocate for that reform agenda within the Scottish Government. I can therefore today announce that I will not be seeking nomination as the next SNP leader. John will therefore have my support and endorsement in any campaign to follow."

Nominations are to close at noon on Monday for SNP leader but it looks highly unlikely that any other serious candidate will come forward.

If that is the case is Mr Swinney will be officially unveiled as SNP leader on Monday afternoon even just minutes after midday.

He will be nominated as the SNP candidate for First Minister and could be formally elected to the position in Holyrood on Tuesday. He would then be sworn into the role, to become Scotland's seventh First Minister, at the Court Session the following day, when he is also expected to announce his Cabinet.

Mr Swinney was party leader between 2000 and 2004 when the SNP was in opposition in Holyrood and was quickly seen as the favoured figure in the party to succeed Mr Yousaf and unite the party.

The Herald: Humza Yousaf, Ash Regan, left, and Kate Forbes, right, pictured as the results were announced of the SNP leadership last year. Photo PA.

But at his press conference today The Herald asked why should he be leader again when the party wanted him to stand down in 2004.

The Herald also pointed out the UK's top pollster Sir John Curtice said earlier this week that he "was very good in the role" then.

We asked for him to respond to Sir John's assessment.

"May be I should send Sir John Curtice a Christmas card," he said smiling as members of the audience laughed.

READ MORE: Analysis: Swinney's bid to win over Forbes and heal wounds

He went onto address the substantive issue: "One of my correspondents, who is here today, wrote to me 'you've got to stand. You have to realise that the party you led in 2000 to 2004 is different to the one that exists today.

"And my correspondent said to me 'if you don't mind me saying so and so too are you'. You have a lot more under you're belt in the intervening 20 years.' 

"And I have. I am a different character, a stronger character, a lot tougher."

He also underlined that the party had changed since 2004, and pointed to a 'formidable group of people' elected in Westminster and Holyrood.

The issue of change will feature strongly as the SNP try to get back on the front foot ahead of the general election, expected this year, and a Holyrood election in 2006.

During the press conference at the Grassmarket Community Project in Candlemaker Row in Edinburgh Mr Swinney declared he would be no "caretaker" telling the audience he would remain as First Minister for the duration of the new parliament after the 2026 elections staying on until 2030. 

Many Cabinet ministers were in attendance with net zero secretary Mairi McAllan introducing the politician who for many of those present 'needed no introduction'.

Social justice secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville, rural affairs secretary Mairi Gougeon, transport secretary Fiona Hyslop and external affairs secretary Angus Robertson were just some of the senior government figures present backing Mr Swinney's campaign.

Many in the SNP see Mr Swinney as the figure who can unite a deeply divided party and turn around the party's fortunes at a crucial time.

He told supporters and journalists: "I want to unite the SNP and unite Scotland for independence," as he conceded the party is "not as cohesive as it needs to be".

Significantly, he praised his potential leadership rival Ms Forbes.

Mr Swinney described the former Scottish finance secretary as an "intelligent, creative, thoughtful person who has much to contribute" to public life.

Promising she would play a "significant part" in his team, he added: "If elected I will make sure Kate is able to make that contribution."

However, he declined to say if he would make Ms Forbes deputy first minister should he win the race.

Not surprisingly, Mr Swinney also spoke of his passion and commitment to independence and said he would deliver it when pressed by the BBC.

 "I want to unite the SNP and unite Scotland for independence."

He made clear his intentions to refocus attention on bread and butter issues such growing the economy and creating jobs and delivery change through social democratic principles.

"If elected by my party and by Parliament, my goals as First Minister will come straight from that moderate centre-left tradition – the pursuit of economic growth and of social justice," he said.

“Economic growth, not for its own sake, but to support the services and society we all want to see.  

“I will pursue priorities that will make Scotland the best our country can be as a modern, innovative, dynamic nation.  

“In an advanced Western society child poverty is a curse. The government I aspire to lead will be focused on doing all in its power to eradicate child poverty."

On tackling climate change he said there was a need for an approach which took into account the needs of people and businesses.

“The climate emergency is a real and present threat to our society, but we need to recognise that the pursuit of net zero has to take people and business with us. When resources are limited, they must be used forensically to make the greatest impact on the challenge we face. 

“Government must use its powers and resources to support economic growth and to ensure we create a vibrant economy in every part of our country. That means every aspect of policy - on planning, skills, infrastructure - must be aligned to support our aim of creating a successful economy.  

“I want ministers to be focused on the delivery of services on which the public depend - on health, on education, on housing, on transport - so people see their lives are getting better as a result of the actions of their government."   

Mr Swinney also signalled a desire to steer the SNP away from issues such as trans rights which have heightened tensions in his party.

It was telling, that when asked by a reporter to say whether a transgender woman was a woman, Mr Swinney moved the question on.

He responded: “If our politics is defined purely and simply by these questions, I think we’re not addressing the core issues and challenges that people face in our society. So, today, I am going to address the core challenges and priorities that face people in our society.”

Mr Swinney launched his leadership bid a week after Mr Yousaf tore up the powersharing deal the SNP had with the Scottish Greens at Holyrood - a move which led to him announcing on Monday he is to step down from the post just 13 months after taking over from Ms Sturgeon.

With the party now facing the prospect of a second leadership contest in just over a year, Mr Swinney insisted he could "bring the SNP back together again" and "get us focused on what we do best".

Mr Swinney joined the SNP as a teenager and served as an MP at Westminster before becoming an MSP when the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999.

After the SNP won power in 2007, he then served in the Scottish Government for 16 years, stepping down as deputy first minister only last year when Ms Sturgeon resigned.

Mr Swinney insisted: "Having served as a senior minister for 16 years, having helped steer Scotland so close to independence in 2014, I want to give all I have in me to ensure the success of our cause.
"I believe I have the experience, the skills and I command the trust and the confidence of people across this country."

Mr Swinney has already attracted significant support from his party for his bid to be its next leader - with Westminster leader Stephen Flynn, Scottish Health Secretary Neil Gray and Scottish Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth amongst his backers.

Opposition parties said that Mr Swinney’s record in government, including a testing period as education secretary where he faced a confidence vote over exam results, would boost their chances.

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, branded Mr Swinney a “failed former leader”, adding: “Scotland deserves better than someone whose fingerprints are all over 17 years of SNP failure and secrecy.”

Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, said: “John Swinney was the finance minister who broke the public finances, the worst education secretary in the history of the Scottish Parliament, the deputy first minister who deleted evidence meant for the Covid inquiry and the man who has been at the heart of this incompetent SNP government for the past 17 years."

Alex Cole-Hamilton, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said that Mr Swinney had “more baggage than an airport carousel”.