John Swinney will need to call on SNP goodwill and opposition respect over Holyrood policy plans - Ian Swanson

John Swinney did not expect to be First Minister. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA WireJohn Swinney did not expect to be First Minister. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
John Swinney did not expect to be First Minister. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

All eyes are on John Swinney as he settles into his new role as First Minister and sets out his plans. Mr Swinney has repeatedly said that, after leaving government along with Nicola Sturgeon last year, he was not expecting to find himself in the top job. But after Humza Yousaf's resignation he quickly emerged as the obvious choice.

He hasn't had much time to recover from the whirlwind which swept him from the backbenches to Bute House in just nine days. But he has had to get down to business straight away.

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He immediately signalled his intent to bring his divided party together by appointing Kate Forbes as deputy first minister and giving her the influential economy brief. But his Cabinet reshuffle saw few other changes in the team he inherited. The next question is whether there will be much change in the policies.

Mr Yousaf found himself in trouble because of bitter differences between his then coalition partners the Greens and sections of the SNP over policies on gender identity and climate action. The ending of the coalition has delighted these SNP critics, who now want to see a change of direction, but others in the party still back the "progressive" policies. And support from the Greens, though no longer part of the government, could still prove crucial, given the SNP's lack of an overall majority. Mr Swinney is a hugely popular figure within the SNP, so has a lot of goodwill from both parliamentarians and party members as he tries to restore harmony in the Nationalist ranks. And he is also respected across the Holyrood chamber.

Opponents can paint Mr Swinney's leadership coronation as turning the clock back 20 years - he was SNP leader from 2000 until 2004 and it was not a success - but circumstances are different and Mr Swinney has acquired a lot of experience in high office in the meantime. He has already named economic growth and tackling child poverty as his priorities. But it is what he decides to do about more controversial issues - such as conversion therapy, rent controls, juryless rape trials, tax increases on the rich, the future of North Sea oil and gas - which will excite more attention.

Mr Swinney will want to take the heat out of the debates around these policies. If it is possible to delay, amend or refocus the plans he might succeed. But feelings run so high on many of these matters that fudging them is not easy. The new First Minister may have to call on all that SNP goodwill and respect from other parties if he is to navigate his way through the minefield.