Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
by Louise Wilson
24 March 2023
Scotland’s Next First Minister: Parliament’s election process explained

Scotland’s Next First Minister: Parliament’s election process explained

Once the dust has settled after the SNP leadership contest, there’s still a few more steps to go before Scotland has its sixth first minister.

The internal vote within the SNP closes at midday on Monday and the party has said it will announce the winner shortly after.

Nicola Sturgeon has said she will resign at FM once the new leader is in place. To do this, she has to offer her resignation to the King.

That triggers the Scottish Parliament process for elect her successor.

When will it happen?

According to the Scotland Act, Holyrood must choose a new first minister within 28 days of the resignation of the last one. Time has been set aside on Tuesday afternoon for the election.

Nominations must be submitted 30 minutes before the formal vote – so that will be approximately 13:45 on Tuesday.

The length of time from their will depend on the number of candidates, but a new First Minister will have been chosen by MSPs by the end of the day.

The Presiding Officer will then submit the name of that person to the King to be formally sworn in and the King will sign the Royal warrant. That is expected on Tuesday.

The final stage of the swearing in of the next First Minister at the Court of Session, set for Wednesday morning.

How does the voting process work?

Any MSP can run for the position of First Minister. The only bar they have to clear is to have the support of one other MSP.

If there are more than two candidates for First Minister – as has been the case on several occasions in the past – voting will take place over a number of rounds.

The winner must receive more votes than all other candidates combined to be successful. If that does not happen, the person with the least amount of votes drops out the contest (and candidates can also choose to drop out at this point too) and voting starts again.

If candidates are whittled down to two without a winner, the person with a simple majority wins.

A quarter of all MSPs (33) must take part in the election for it to be quorum. This total includes all votes for candidates and those who formally abstain.

What if no one wins?

In the highly unlikely event that parliament cannot or does not choose a new first minister, they have 28 days to find one.

If, at the end of four weeks, there is still no first minister, the Presiding Officer calls an election.

Who has stood to be FM in the past?

According to the Scottish Parliament Information Service (SPICe), there have been nine first minister elections with a total of 16 candidates.

Donald Dewar, the first First Minister, saw off competition from Dennis Canavan, David McLetchie and Alex Salmond.

His successor Henry McLeish was challenged by Canavan, McLetchie and John Swinney.

Jack McConnell also beat these three to become FM after McLeish resigned – but in the second FM contest he faced after the 2003 election, was saw off six challengers: Canavan, McLetchie, Swinney, Robin Harper, Margo MacDonald and Tommy Sheridan.

After the 2007 election, Alex Salmond was MSPs’ choice over McConnell, Annabel Goldie and Nicol Stephen. Salmond stood unopposed in 2011 after the SNP secured a majority.

Nicola Sturgeon was elected as First Minister three times. On the first, she saw off Ruth Davidson. The second time, she beat Willie Rennie. And in the third, Rennie and Douglas Ross were her challengers.

What about the rest of Cabinet?

All cabinet secretaries and ministers remain in place while all this is happening.

But the new FM will want to get a reshuffle underway pretty sharpish to put their stamp on the next era of Scottish politics.

Time has been set aside on Thursday afternoon for parliament to approve the appointment of any new ministers – suggesting the reshuffle will take place on Wednesday, following the formal swearing in.

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox


Popular reads
Back to top