NICOLA Sturgeon is set to be elected unchallenged as the new First Minister following Alex Salmond’s resignation in the wake of the referendum defeat.
Mr Salmond announced his departure in his official residence, Bute House, within 12 hours of Scots rejecting the SNP’s independence proposals by 55 per cent to 45.
He said with 1.6 million votes in favour of independence and pressure for increasing the powers of the Holyrood parliament, the “new exciting situation” was “redolent with possibility”.
But he said he believed party, parliament and country would “benefit from new leadership”.
Mr Salmond said it was not for him to comment on who his successor should be, but Deputy First Minister Ms Sturgeon has long been considered the heir apparent. And today senior SNP sources said it was unlikely anyone would stand against her.
Mr Salmond will continue as First Minister until the SNP conference in November, where the new leader will be elected. Whoever is chosen is expected to be formally elected First Minister by MSPs the following week.
One insider said: “Everyone will fall in behind Nicola. Anyone else deciding to stand would just be wasting their time. The feeling will be she has proved herself as deputy.”
Justice Secretary and Edinburgh Eastern MSP Kenny MacAskill said he would not stand. And Finance Secretary John Swinney seems unlikely to want another shot at the role he held for four years between 2000 and 2004.
Health Secretary Alex Neil paid tribute to Mr Salmond and said he would back Ms Sturgeon.
He said: “I’m really sorry Alex is going. He has been by far the best First Minister we have had, he has made a huge contribution to the development of the SNP and he took us to the referendum and got a good result, even though it was not enough to win it. He was also a pleasure to work with.
“I’m going to support Nicola Sturgeon. She is the obvious successor. I think it’s time we had a woman First Minister and she has proved herself up to the job. She fought a brilliant campaign in the referendum, as did Alex.”
Mr Salmond said he would remain active in politics and planned to stand again as MSP for Aberdeenshire East at the next Holyrood election in 2016.
He had insisted during the referendum campaign that he would not quit if there was a No vote.
And he told yesterday’s press conference he would not have stepped down if there had been a Yes vote, but he said it was now time for a new leader who could take the devolution process forward.
He said the pro-UK parties’ offer of more powers seemed to have won the campaign for the No side.
“There’s a suspicion that some people began to believe that something substantial was about to be offered for Scotland,” he said.
“Where we are now is to make sure that vows and promises and commitments which are offered are realised. If they aren’t realised then I suspect there will be a bitter harvest, not for the people of Scotland, but a bitter harvest for those who engaged in that.
“We now have the opportunity to hold Westminster’s feet to the fire on the vow they have made to devolve further powers to Scotland.”
He said he had spoken to the Prime Minister but Mr Cameron would not commit to a Second Reading vote on a new Scotland Bill on more powers for Holyrood by March 27.
“That was a clear promise laid out by Gordon Brown during the campaign. The Prime Minister says such a vote would be meaningless. I suspect he cannot guarantee the support of his party.”
Mr Salmond said he was “immensely proud” of the campaign which Yes Scotland fought and of the 1.6 million voters who rallied to that cause by backing an independent Scotland.
He said: “The real guardians of progress are no longer the politicians at Westminster or even at Holyrood, but the energised activism of tens of thousands of people who I predict will refuse meekly to go back into the political shadows.
“For me right now, therefore, there is a decision as to who is best placed to lead this process forward politically.
“I believe that in this new exciting situation, redolent with possibility, party, parliament and country would benefit from new leadership.”
He said: “It has been the privilege of my life to serve Scotland as First Minister. But as I said often during the referendum campaign this is not about me or the SNP. It is much more important than that.
“The position is this: we lost the referendum vote but can still carry the political initiative. More importantly, Scotland can still emerge as the real winner.
“My time as leader is nearly over, but for Scotland the campaign continues and the dream shall never die.”
Gordon Wilson, Mr Salmond’s predecessor as SNP leader, praised him as “undoubtedly the greatest Scottish politician of his generation”.
Ms Sturgeon said: “Alex Salmond’s achievements as SNP leader and Scotland’s First Minister are second to none.
“The personal debt of gratitude I owe Alex is immeasurable. He has been my friend, mentor and colleague for more than 20 years.”
She acknowledged speculation about whether she would stand to succeed Mr Salmond. She said: “I can think of no greater privilege than to seek to lead the party I joined when I was just 16. However, that decision is not for today.”
Political opponents were also quick to pay tribute to Mr Salmond. Prime Minister David Cameron said: “Alex is a politician of huge talent and passion. He has been an effective First Minister and always fights his corner.
“While we disagree profoundly about his goal of a separated Scotland, and many other things, I respect and admire his huge contribution to politics and public life.”
Labour’s Alistair Darling said: “Alex Salmond is a formidable political figure. He transformed the SNP into a party of government and delivered their referendum on independence which they had craved so long.
“He can look back with pride on being the longest-serving First Minister and to the huge contribution he has made to public life in Scotland. I wish him well in the future.”
The Queen delivered a message of reconciliation in the wake of the referendum.
In a detailed written statement issued from Balmoral, she said: “For many in Scotland and elsewhere, there will be strong feelings and contrasting emotions – among family, friends and neighbours.
“That, of course, is the nature of the robust democratic tradition we enjoy in this country. But I have no doubt that these emotions will be tempered by an understanding of the feelings of others.
“Now, as we move forward, we should remember that despite the range of views that have been expressed, we have in common an enduring love of Scotland, which is one of the things that helps to unite us all.
“Knowing the people of Scotland as I do, I have no doubt that Scots, like others throughout the United Kingdom, are able to express strongly-held opinions before coming together again in a spirit of mutual respect and support, to work constructively for the future of Scotland and indeed all parts of this country.”