This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

When Anas Sarwar took over the reins of Scottish Labour in February 2021, he was blunt about the dismal place the party had found itself in.

After winning the party leadership contest against Monica Lennon, Mr Sarwar told me that Labour needed to face up to its “relevance problem” and strap in for a long-term rebuilding project.

He insisted there was no “quick fix” to turn around Scottish Labour’s fortunes at the polls and warned any resurgence in the party’s popularity spearheaded by Keir Starmer’s leadership could not be held back by failures in Scotland “being the drag on the ticket”.

He had less than three months to get Scottish Labour dusted off and in working order to fight the 2021 Holyrood election, but stressed there was not enough time to sort things out to replace the Scottish Conservatives as the leading opposition party to the SNP’s government.

During that election campaign at a televised leaders’ debate, only Nicola Sturgeon raised her hand when asked who was in line to be first minister following the election.

But the SNP being the only party in any position to pick up the keys to Bute House is no longer the case – even more than two years out from the next Holyrood election.

The Herald: Anas Sarwar

For that, Mr Sarwar and Scottish Labour, are due enormous praise.

Mr Sarwar and his Labour colleagues are oozing with confidence and believe he could be the next first minister of Scotland.

Again, the next Holyrood election is a long way off, we have a UK general election to get through next year, before attention will start to turn to Holyrood.

It is difficult to know for sure what alone has caused Scottish Labour to surge in the polls and essentially now be neck and neck with the SNP.

It is likely the shock resignation of Ms Sturgeon and the SNP finances probe has tipped support away from Mr Yousaf’s party and into the hands of Mr Sarwar.

There is also a feeling across the UK that Labour is on its way up – not least in polls that put it strides ahead of the Tories at Westminster.

Read More: Sarwar appeals to Yes voters to back Labour to oust Tories from power at Westminster

The thrashing that Labour handed out to the SNP at the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election also gave an indication, albeit an inflated one, that Labour support is soaring in Scotland – the party could also pick up further by-election victories in England on Thursday.

Ahead of the Rutherglen victory, Mr Sarwar insisted that a win for his party would  “earn the right for people to regard me as being competitive to become first minister come 2026”.

But there is nothing concrete to suggest that Labour will retain its support in Scotland in the lead-up to the next Holyrood election.

Who knows what role the independence debate, which has damaged Labour for its often wishy-washy stance on the constitution, will have in two years’ time.

But there is some suggestion that Labour’s increased support in England has, at least in part, been down to the dwindling popularity of the Conservatives under Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and now Rishi Sunak.

It could simply be true that this is being replicated north of the Border amid the SNP’s troubles and the same government in power at Holyrood for more than 16 years. Alarmingly for Labour, this boost could be temporary and evaporate long before the next Holyrood poll.

Next year’s general election in Scotland is gearing up to pit Labour in a duel against the SNP.

The Herald:

The SNP is intent on securing a majority of Scottish seats, claiming it as another mandate for independence or the right to hold an independence referendum.

For Labour, a surge in Scottish MPs – given the party has only just doubled its tally from one to two – could have a huge impact on whether Keir Starmer can secure a Commons majority to become the next prime minister.

But problems will undoubtedly lie ahead for Mr Sarwar, particularly if Sir Keir does become the next prime minister, as is expected.

Read More: SNP on the attack after Labour's Ian Murray rejects new powers for Holyrood

Criticising the Tory government at Westminster and the Scottish Government’s record has been a walk in the park for Mr Sarwar, despite some unashamed ignoring of his party colleagues in Wales taking a similar stance on some policies the Scottish Labour leader has criticised the SNP for.

Mr Sarwar thrives as a leader in opposition at Holyrood, picking topics that resonate, particularly the NHS – with cutting rhetoric and at times, heartbreaking case studies.

But being forced to defend his party’s government in Westminster in response will be a new and difficult challenge. Just ask Douglas Ross.

Even though we are more than two years away from the next Holyrood election, a lifetime in the world of politics, Mr Sarwar, if he is going to be the next first minister, will also need to address which other parties could have to prop him up, which is another likely outcome. He could in all reality need the Conservatives to support a Labour government at Holyrood.

Mr Sarwar will face some extremely uncomfortable home truths both from Westminster and closer to home – and so much can happen before 2026. Just look back at the last year.

Despite his chance to become the first Labour first minister in 19 years in 2026, Labour still has a long way to go to put itself in the hot seat in Scotland – even if it cruises to victory at Westminster next year.

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