The race to replace Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the SNP will last less than six weeks, the party has announced, as it postponed plans for a special independence conference.
Health Secretary Humza Yousaf is expected to announce he is running to become Scotland’s next First Minister but Deputy First Minister John Swinney and MP Joanna Cherry have ruled themselves out of the battle.
After a meeting of the party’s national executive committee those eying the top job have until February 24 to submit their nomination, with the vote open between March 13 and 27.
Lorna Finn, the party’s national secretary, said: “Nicola has been the outstanding politician of this generation.
“We are very fortunate that she will remain an SNP MSP and a leading campaigner for an independent Scotland.
“But the SNP is full of talented individuals and they now have the opportunity to put themselves forward and our new leader will lead us into the final phase of Scotland’s journey towards independence.”
The party said its special conference on March 19, in which members were set to discuss the path towards an independence vote, had been “postponed”.
Ms Sturgeon had backed the use of the next general election as a de facto referendum, with that meeting set up to discuss the proposal.
Ms Finn said: “It would be wrong to have a newly elected leader tied to a key decision on how we deliver democracy in Scotland in the face of continued Westminster intransigence.
“Therefore, the party’s special democracy conference, previously planned for Sunday March 19, is postponed.
“SNP members, the lifeblood of this party and movement, will be updated in due course on details of a rearranged event once the new party leader is in place.”
Also on Thursday, the Daily Record reported that Mr Yousaf was expected to announce his bid to become the next leader of the SNP and First Minister of Scotland in what is likely to be the party’s first leadership contest in nearly 20 years.
The Daily Record quoted a source which said Mr Yousaf, who entered the Scottish Parliament in 2011, had “a lot of support from MPs and MSPs” and labelled him a “unifying force” who had experience having been in government for a decade.
“Just as he has managed to get health unions round the table, he would bring the party together,” the source told the paper.
But Mr Swinney said he would not be standing, and said that with routes to an independence vote blocked, it required the SNP to consider carefully its next steps.
“To create the space for that fresh perspective to emerge, I have decided not to be a candidate for leadership in the SNP,” he said.
“At this critical moment, I believe there must be an open debate within the SNP about our direction.”
Ms Cherry also ruled herself out, and said the “messianic leadership model has not worked”.
The MP said in her column in The National newspaper that the resignation of Ms Sturgeon could be a “turning point”, but only if the party could “honestly appraise where things have gone wrong and radically reset our approach”.
“The new leader needs to reach out across the party and the movement and to adopt a more collegiate approach,” she said.
“If we are to go forward united to achieve our goal of independence, we need to face up to what has gone wrong and put it right.”