A Scottish Government minister has ruled today ruled himself out of the SNP leadership race to back Humza Yousaf for the top job.

Neil Gray, who is minister for culture, Europe and international development, left open the prospect of a future bid for the role saying it "not the right time" for him.

He said he believed the Health Secretary had the "skills and experience to bring people across the party and civic Scotland together behind our vision for a fairer independent Scotland." 

Nominations for the role opened last week and to date Mr Yousaf, the MSP for Glasgow Pollok, and Ash Regan, MSP for Edinburgh Eastern, have thrown their hats into the ring.

Mr Gray is a popular figure in the SNP and was among the figures being discussed for the leadership post.

But writing on Twitter this morning, he set out his reasons for not standing.

"It has been incredibly flattering to have been suggested as a candidate to be the next leader of the SNP and First Minister of Scotland. I am very grateful to those across the party who have asked me to stand," he wrote.

"The job of the next leader of the SNP is to be a First Minister that can continue to govern effectively, build a team to re-earn the incredible popular support inspired by Nicola and to take people on the journey to consistent majority support for independence and a fairer Scotland."

He added: " I have seriously considered, with family and colleagues, whether I am the right person to do that job. I have concluded that with my children the age they are, and given I am relatively new to government, now is not the right time for me.

"The SNP is lucky to have a range of talented, energetic and passionate potential leaders who can take people with us on that journey to a fairer independent Scotland.

"My view is that Humza Yousaf has the skills and experience to bring people across the party and civic Scotland together behind our vision for a fairer independent Scotland. I will therefore be giving him my full support as the next the SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland."

Mr Yousaf is currently the Health Secretary and one of the SNP's most senior and high-profile ministers.

The 37-year-old's decision to run in the race to replace Ms Sturgeon came after "careful consideration" of the impact it will have on his family.

He will hope to tap into the same base of activist support as the First Minister, particularly in Glasgow - which they both represent at Holyrood.

Writing in the Sunday Mail, the Health Secretary said: "You've got to put yourself forward if you think you're the best person for the job. And I do.

"This is the top job in the country, and it needs somebody who has experience."

The Scottish Conservatives responded to the two candidates for the role of SNP leader and First Minister.

Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Dr Sandesh Gulhane MSP said:

“Humza Yousaf ought to have been sacked as health secretary months ago, so the idea that he’s a credible candidate for promotion to First Minister is astonishing. 

“This is not about him as a person, but his record in government.

“He has been exposed as the worst health secretary since devolution, having presided over the biggest crisis in our health service’s history. 

“Scotland’s NHS is on its knees on his watch – with record waiting times and a desperate shortage of frontline staff. 

“Humza Yousaf's flimsy Covid and winter recovery plans are not fit for purpose and he has lost the trust of worried patients and exhausted staff alike. 

“He’s done untold damage to our NHS. If he were to succeed Nicola Sturgeon, he risks doing similar harm to all our public services.”

Scottish Conservative deputy leader Meghan Gallacher said: “I think Ash Regan was right to reject Nicola Sturgeon’s GRR Bill, but she’s got it badly wrong with her divisive leadership pitch.

“Presumably in an effort to appease SNP members angered by her resignation, she is throwing them some red meat on independence. 

“It’s hard to imagine the SNP becoming more obsessed with independence than they already are – but Ash Regan promises to be Sturgeon-on-steroids when it comes to the constitution.

“Her top priority is an ‘independence convention’, while she wants every UK and Scottish election to be a ‘de facto’ referendum, and closer links with Alex Salmond’s discredited Alba Party.

“Her slogan is ‘Independence – nothing less’. It might as well be: ‘Independence – nothing else’. 

“The public desperately want the SNP Government to focus on their priorities – the cost-of-living crisis, getting Scotland’s NHS off life support and ending teacher strikes – but Ash Regan is ignoring them. Hers is a pitch to be SNP leader, but not a credible one to be First Minister.”

Other possible candidates for the top job include Culture Secretary Angus Robertson, Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, currently on maternity leave, and Justice Secretary Keith Brown.

Nominations close on Friday with SNP members later balloted for who they want. The ballot closes on 27 March with the winner announced shortly after all the votes have been counted.