THERE was very little doubt that Humza Yousaf was the pick of the party hierarchy. 

Though Nicola Sturgeon insisted she would not endorse any of the three MSPs vying for her job, she didn’t really need to. 

The now ex-health minister was backed by John Swinney, her faithful deputy and by Shona Robison, her best friend in politics.

It's telling that Ms Sturgeon tipped off Mr Yousaf that she was quitting, but not Kate Forbes. 

READ MORE: Humza Yousaf to be new First Minister

The First Minister’s most trusted special adviser, Liz Lloyd, even stepped back from her day job - with Ms Sturgeon’s explicit consent - to work on Mr Yousaf’s campaign. 

Reports over the weekend suggested she even tried to dissuade Kate Forbes from even entering the race, something Ms Lloyd hotly denies. 

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His position as the favourite son was also, in part, because a number of other potential candidates looked at the job - described by Ms Sturgeon in her resignation speech as intense and brutal - and thought no way.

Angus Robertson wanted to prioritise being “first dad” rather than become first minister.  Mr Swinney, an almost certain shoo-in, said he had instead decided to "create the space for a fresh perspective to emerge".


Other potential candidates, including relative newbies Mairi McAllan, Ben MacPherson and relative old-timer Keith Brown all soon followed suit.

Mr Yousaf didn’t have a hard new message to sell. He was the reassuring voice of the past. 

He may not have offered anything different, but, hey, he had charm to spare, and he was going to use it to win over the public and deliver independence somehow. Details TBC.

He also sucked up shamelessly to Ms Sturgeon and Mr Swinney, oiling them all over with praise at every chance, presenting himself as the third part of the trilogy.  

True, Mr Yousaf also had the “experience” card to play, having entered Holyrood five years before his rivals in 2011, and serving as a minister since 2012.

Although, amid some of the worst NHS statistics on record, that was a double-edged boast.  

READ MORE: Profile: Who is Humza Yousaf, Scotland's new First Minister?

Neil Gray, one of those whose names initially kept coming up in conversations about the vacancy, was on his way to a ship called Ambition when Ms Sturgeon resigned. 

The Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development, whose remit takes in the plight of the Ukrainian refugees, was heading to the borrowed cruise ship that has been a temporary home for some of those forced to flee following Putin’s invasion. 

“Just as I pulled up my phone absolutely went bananas. I just saw the news. My heart fell into my stomach.”

It didn’t take very long before people were asking about his own ambition. Would he throw his hat into the ring to replace the first minister?

He spoke to his wife, but he says he “probably knew in my heart that really this was not going to be right.”

He and Mr Yousaf had been messaging back and forth and had set up a call on the Friday morning. 

“I wanted to find out for sure if he was going to do it, because it hadn't been confirmed. We didn't really know. 

“And I said to my wife that if he says he's running, I'm gonna back him and that's going to be the decisive thing for me to finally make my mind up. We had the conversation. He said, ‘yeah, I'm running’. And I was like, right, well, 'I'm there behind you. I'm with you. 'And that was it.”


Mr Gray and Ms Robinson would end up playing key roles in Mr Yousaf’s bid for the top job. 

The thanks to the two in his campaign speech was effusive. Expect both to feature prominently in his cabinet, with the social justice minister possibly even becoming the John to Mr Yousaf’s Nicola. 

As well as securing the backing of considerably more MSPs and MPs than his rivals, his campaign also made a concerted effort to win over the party’s many councillors, with the candidate, Mr Gray and Ms Robison reaching out to the SNP groups on Scotland’s 32 local authorities. 

Mr Gray said this was in part because councillors, like parliamentarians, are influential and have a good contact network within the party’s branches.

“But also because he wants to build a very strong relationship between government, the party leadership, members on all levels. And, you know, the councillors are going to be absolutely critical to that. 

“He also recognises that it's been a challenging time. For councillors over the recent period and he wants to listen to that.”

READ MORE: Scottish Greens react as Humza Yousaf is elected SNP leader

On the day Mr Yousaf confirmed his bid for the top job so too did Ash Regan, the former community safety minister who quit the government over the Gender Recognition Reform Bill. 

Both gave their announcements exclusively to a Sunday paper which claimed the contest would be a “Battle of the Bill.”

Ms Forbes - a member of the socially conservative, evangelical Free Church of Scotland - who also raised concerns about the legislation, announced her bid the next day.

Despite rumours of a last-minute fourth candidate, by the close of nominations, only the three had thrown their hats into the ring. 

Not all activists were inspired by the choice facing them. 

“This is a shitshow, a bonfire, a worst of all situations and Keith Brown let us all down by not standing as a blandidate,” said one aggrieved insider.

As Ms Regan also pointed out - often after a gaffe - the lack of time also precluded the development of a detailed prospectus by any candidate.

There was also a risible spending limit of £5000 per campaign, which stopped the hopefuls making repeat contact with the electorate and badgering them into their column.

In the Scottish Labour leadership election of 2017, Anas Sarwar received donations of more than £150,000 to help him fight left-winger Richard Leonard, most from family and business.

Mr Leonard in turn received almost £70,000, largely from trade unions.

One old Labour hand said he was astonished at the SNP’s decisions, and the party’s refusal to share contact data with the candidates.

“If it had been one of our contests, the campaigns would have been sending text messages to the members, either all or at once, or in particular seats.

“We’d have been running phone banks every night, calling people to back our candidate.”

“John Swinney backing Humza was massive," he added. "His campaign should have been sending every party member a text message talking about it. But they couldn't. 

There have been difficult moments for Mr Yousaf. The start of his campaign was almost derailed over questions about his commitment to equal marriage. 

HeraldScotland: Humza Yousaf

Though he backed the legislation at its first parliamentary stage in November 2013, he missed the final Stage 3 vote in February 2014.

He said this was because he had an “unavoidable” meeting with the Pakistan Consul General in Glasgow to discuss the case of Mohammad Asghar, a Scot with a history of mental illness, who was on death row in Pakistan for blasphemy.

However, Alex Neil, who led the same-sex marriage legislation through Holyrood, claimed that Mr Yousaf missed the final vote because of “pressure from the mosque”.

Alex Salmond then intervened to say that that was his recollection too. 

Mr Yousaf has robustly denied the allegations. There was no nuance, no sophistry in his answers on this. He missed the vote because the meeting with the consulate was unavoidable and unarrangeable. 

However, Mr Neil still stands by his recollection. 

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon responds to SNP leadership election result

The contest has maybe not been the Battle of the Bill predicted by the press, but questions over the gender legislation and what happens next remain. 

Mr Yousaf made very clear at the start of the race that he would push on with Nicola Sturgeon’s plan to challenge the UK Government’s section 35, regardless of legal advice, because of the principle of defending devolution. 

Though his position had modified in the final week, with the Glasgow Pollok MSP making clear he would be guided by the legal advice. 

However, in remarks following the result, he seemed to have reverted to that original position. 

“In terms of the GRR bill, I’ve made my position absolutely clear on Section 35. I see it as veto, as a power grab by the UK government," he said. "I don't think they have a right to use that Section 35 power given given the majority of Holyrood backed the GRR bill. So, of course my first principle, my starting principle is to challenge that Section 35.”

Perhaps one of the harder campaign moments for Mr Yousaf to escape will be the brutal attack on his record in office by his rivals.

Ahead of the first televised hustings on STV on March 7, Ms Forbes had already struck a combative tone with a press release in which she suggested Mr Yousaf was a duffer.

“More of the same is not a manifesto - it’s an acceptance of mediocrity,” it said.

But that was nothing next to the haymaker she landed on him in the debate itself.

"You were a transport minister and the trains were never on time, when you were justice secretary the police were stretched to breaking point, and now as health minister, we've got record high waiting times. What makes you think you can do a better job as first minister?”


It was widely assumed to have been carefully scripted but was actually spontaneous.

The remark left Mr Yousaf - and many of his Holyrood colleagues - absolutely stunned. It also reportedly left Nicola Sturgeon furious.

Douglas Ross was near floating when he recounted it for her at that week’s First Minister’s Questions. It was repeated back at Stephen Flynn by Rishi Sunak in Westminster at the next Prime Minister’s Questions.

“Attacking Humza on his record was attacking the Government’s record,” one minister said. “The members did not like that.”

Given that she took in 48% of the vote, clearly it struck a chord with a significant section the party.

Made with Flourish

The arrogant, top-down, controlling nature of the party had been winding people up for years, one Forbes source reckoned. Comments like that against Mr Yousaf therefore fell on fertile ground. There was an appetite among the members for a new voice and a new tack.

“You have to be prepared to stick your neck out if you’re a leader,” said an ally. 

The SNP membership had a fundamental choice - go with the person who was best known to them and who offered the least challenge to their comfort zone, or go with the person who was more popular with the country, and try to convert No voters to the cause.

The result was perhaps closer than expected - Mr Yousaf won just 24,336 votes in the first round, little more than a third of the party - but the party has opted to push ahead with continuity.