Humza Yousaf has become the first possible contender to succeed Nicola Sturgeon, with the current Scottish Health Secretary saying he is giving “serious consideration” to running.
Mr Yousaf paid tribute to the outgoing First Minister, saying she had “put Scotland’s interests first”.
But he also said you could “see the personal toll it has taken on her”, adding she had “put her life into progressing our movement and putting the country first”.
The father-of-two said he is now speaking to his family about whether he should put himself forward to replace Ms Sturgeon as both SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister.
Asked if he would be putting himself forward, Mr Yousaf said: “From my own perspective I am giving it serious consideration, why would you not? It is the top job in Scotland, it is a job you don’t get the opportunity to go for very often.
“On the flip side of that it can take a big toll on you personally, and on your family, and I have got to really speak to my family about whether this is the right thing for us as a collective unit.
“That discussion is ongoing and I will make my decision known in the coming days.”
Speaking during a visit to the New Victoria Hospital in Glasgow, Mr Yousaf said a “lot of people” in his party have been “really encouraging” about the prospect of him standing, saying he is “grateful for that”.
Mr Yousaf said: “We are not just electing the leader of the SNP, which is really important, we are selecting who the next first minister of the entire country and nation will be.
“Whoever is putting their hat in the ring has got to give it that real, serious, deep, meaningful consideration, which is what I am doing.”
With Ms Sturgeon having been the only candidate to come forward when Alex Salmond quit the job in 2014, Mr Yousaf said there should be a leadership contest this time round.
“I think whoever goes for it, there should be a contest,” he said.
“Contests are good, they are healthy, they allow us to engage in ideas, they energise the party as well. It would be good to see a contest.”
Other possible candidates to succeed Ms Sturgeon, who dramatically announced she was stepping down on Wednesday, include Scottish Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, who is on maternity leave, and Constitution Secretary Angus Robertson.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney has ruled himself out, saying the party needs to put forward a “fresh perspective” on the best way forward for the independence cause.
But he said that is not in his consideration, stating: “I have always been grateful, the position I am in in the Scottish Government, and I have been in the Scottish Government for 10 years, as the grandchild of an immigrant the colour of my skin was never a barrier.
“Don’t get me wrong, I get a fair bit of abuse for the colour of my skin and my background, but it has not impeded me from getting to the position I am in a senior level in Government.
“I think that speaks volumes to the kind of country we are.
“It’s not the motivation in terms of consideration. I think the motivation and consideration is first of all, do you think you are capable of doing the job? Do you think you are the best person for the job? And of course the impact it will have for your family. That is the over-riding thoughts, if you are wanting me to be brutally frank and honest about where my considerations are, so all of that is ongoing and is under way.”
Opposition parties have attacked Mr Yousaf’s record as Health Secretary – with accident and emergency departments recording their worst ever waiting time statistics this winter and problems such as delayed discharge also increasing – but the minister said he believes the Scottish Government is in “a positive place with those who work in our health service”.
Mr Yousaf added: “That’s not to say there aren’t challenges.
“I will be the first to tell you that having been Health Secretary in the midst of a global pandemic, our health service has faced significant, significant challenges.
“The worst of the winter that has just passed over the course of the festive period I think was the most challenging few weeks the health service has ever had in entire existence, I hope to never go there ever again and be in that position ever again.
“So we will do everything we can to shore up our health service to deal with the challenges of the winter for next year.”