Nicola Sturgeon’s exit as first minister could mean a rethink on the party’s strategy to win Scottish independence, senior SNP figures have suggested.
Westminster leader Stephen Flynn said the SNP’s March special conference on independence should be postponed to allow for a leadership race and for a successor to set out their “vision”.
Mike Russell, the party’s president, also said the independence plan “needs to be discussed” after Ms Sturgeon’s shock resignation on Wednesday.
Following the Supreme Court ruling that Holyrood could not legislate for another referendum, Ms Sturgeon initially vowed to make the 2024 general election a “de facto” vote on breaking from the UK.
But following widespread criticism, she backed off from the firm promise and announced the party would meet on 19 March to discuss various option – including treating the 2026 Holyrood election as the de facto referendum.
But the conference has now been cast into doubt. Speaking to Sky News, Mr Flynn said: “The de facto referendum was obviously put forward by the first minister and we were going to be discussing and debating the merits of that at that party conference.”
He added: “I personally think that party conference should be paused, for obvious reasons. I think it’s sensible that we do hit the pause button on that conference and allow the new leader the opportunity to set out their vision.”
SNP president Mike Russell said there may be a need to delay the event until a new leader has been selected, suggesting it was “unlikely” the race would be over by then. He told the BBC: “I think that’ a matter that needs to be discussed.”
Mr Russell said it was a “very important moment for the SNP” and for Scottish independence, saying the party had to be “careful” about choosing the right person “to take independence forward and to take Scotland forward”.
A senior Labour figure told The Independent that the surprise exit of Ms Sturgeon kills the independence cause “dead”, as well as giving the opposition an opportunity to win back up to 20 seats in Scotland.
“It’s clear that another referendum and independence is dead and that the first minister’s strategy has hastened that demise,” the opposition source said.
Scottish Labour peer George Foulkes told The Independent: “I think the chances of the SNP moving the dial on independence are diminished by her leaving. I can’t see anyone who has the charisma of Sturgeon now taking over.”
Sir John Curtice, professor of politics and top pollster, told Times Radio that there is no obvious successor who can match up to the effective leadership and “proven persuasive power” of Ms Sturgeon or Alex Salmond.
Mr Salmond warned that the SNP had been “left with no clear strategy for independence” and no obvious successor. Now the leader of the breakaway Alba Party, he said the SNP needed someone to “reunite the movement”.
The SNP’s national executive committee will meet soon to discuss a timetable for the leadership election. Mr Russell, the party’s president, said he expected that process to be “shortened” and there to be a “contested election”.
The contest is expected to be done by the end of March, party sources said. One SNP MP told Politico: “I would be surprised if it was two or three candidates – it could be four or five.”
Potential candidates include constitutional affairs secretary Angus Robertson, finance secretary Kate Forbes, health secretary Humza Yousaf and deputy first minister John Swinney.
Ms Forbes, a member of the evangelical Free Church of Scotland who attracted criticism after making anti-abortion comments at a prayer breakfast in 2018, is among the favourites.
Mr Flynn ruled out taking on “the big task” himself from Westminster. He said there would be “a number who will consider themselves as being capable of taking on the challenge” from Holyrood.
Former US president Donald Trump said the “wonderful people of Scotland are much better off” without Nicola Sturgeon in office. “Good riddance to failed woke extremist Nicola Sturgeon of Scotland!”