DEPUTY First Minister John Swinney has announced that he is backing Humza Yousaf in the SNP’s leadership contest.

The veteran figure within the party said that Yousaf is “best placed” among the candidates to continue the party’s legacy as a “force for progressive change”.

He said: “For the last 40 years, I’ve had the privilege to be supported by members to serve at the heart of the Scottish National Party and our SNP Government.

“I am so proud of what we have achieved in Government, transforming the lives of people in Scotland, and as a party we have never been closer to winning independence.

“We now need to choose an SNP leader who will complete our journey to independence, and I believe that person should be Humza Yousaf.

READ MORE: Actor Alan Cumming weighs in on Kate Forbes leadership campaign

“Humza is best placed to lead our party because he will strengthen the SNP as a force for progressive change in Scottish politics.

“Humza will govern effectively by using the partnership that we enjoy with the Scottish Green Party - guaranteeing us a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament.

“And crucially, Humza will widen our support in attracting new supporters to Scottish Independence.

“Humza is an experienced Minister who’s done all the tough stuff that you have to do day in day out within Government.

“He’s put his heart and soul into all the work he’s done within the party to make the SNP an inclusive political party.

“So for me, John Swinney, it has to be Humza.”

The National:

Reacting to the news, Yousaf said he was “honoured” to have Swinney’s support.

“I am honoured to have the backing of a true giant of the SNP and independence movement, John Swinney, to become SNP leader, “ he said.

“Like Nicola, our party owes so much of our success to John’s stewardship.

“John’s backing is a massive boost to my progressive grassroots campaign to stand up for Scottish democracy, protect and advance rights, unite our Yes movement and secure independence for Scotland.”

Members will be able to cast their votes from Monday (March 13) at noon.

The ballot will be open until March 27, with the winner expected to be announced that same day.

Kate Forbes's campaign manager, Michelle Thomson MSP, said: “When the current Deputy First Minister decides to personally intervene in the leadership contest at such a late stage, you get the sense that senior figures in the party have seen the polls and are absolutely panicking.

“Given how close we are to the vote opening, many party members will look upon this 11th hour intervention rather cynically. They don’t need to be told by party HQ what to think or how to vote.

“It increasingly looks like the top brass would much prefer an establishment transfer of power – to carry on with the status quo – rather than allowing our membership the freedom to make a healthy democratic choice.

“I certainly trust our members to be independent-minded and firmly believe they can make their own minds up on who best serves the party, the country and – crucially – can deliver independence for Scotland. There is no doubt in my mind that that leader is Kate Forbes.”