John Swinney: Two major issues sitting in new SNP leader's in-tray that will shape the future of this party

John Swinney is preparing to take over the SNP, and the role of Scotland's first minister, after days of Holyrood drama.

There is no doubt this is a proud moment for Mr Swinney, his wife and son.

He was Nicola Sturgeon's deputy for the best part of a decade - and can now stand out from her shadow and set his own agenda.

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His previous days as SNP leader in the early 2000s were described as a disaster - but everything is different now.

There are questions about how much of a fresh perspective he will be able to inject into the party he has been part of for 40 years.

He has the hangover of being education secretary during the COVID crisis when children's learning was harmed, overseeing Scotland's finances for a long time, and wiping all of his COVID WhatsApps.

And now, there are two major issues sitting in his in-tray that will shape the future of this party.

A new independence strategy

Aside from the looming general election that polls suggest could be gloomy for the SNP, he will feel pressure from within the party to carve up a new independence strategy.

I asked Mr Swinney last week whether he would follow Humza Yousaf's strategy of demanding Keir Starmer or Rishi Sunak for the powers to hold a second referendum.

It is a well-trodden path from the SNP over recent years. A path that has led to no success.

Read more: John Swinney wins SNP leadership race

Mr Swinney seemed to hint he would ditch Mr Yousaf's strategy of forcing the UK government to begin negotiations for independence if the SNP won the "most" seats at a general election.

It was a plan criticised by some as having no credibility given the polls suggest the party could be on course to lose seats.

Mr Swinney says he proposes having a conversation with the public in a bid to persuade those who are not convinced Scotland can be independent.

The gender-recognition law

One eye is trained on what the incoming first minister will do with the controversial gender recognition reforms that have been blocked as illegal in the courts.

Whitehall ministers were successful in arguing the Holyrood proposals, which would allow 16-year-olds to apply for a gender recognition certificate without a medical diagnosis, would infringe on UK-wide equality laws.

The legislation is currently on ice and Mr Swinney will have to decide whether to bin it, given this is a huge source of disunity within the SNP, or tweak the current law and hope it doesn't end up in the courts again.

On Sunday, he told Sky News he needs to "consider" his move.

How did we get here?

Humza Yousaf had barely finished his tearful resignation speech, and the SNP's establishment had already rallied around Mr Swinney.

There have been questions about what discussions were actually going on in the government engine room as the drama around Mr Yousaf unfolded.

Senior sources say Mr Yousaf made the decision to quit 24 hours before he announced it. The outgoing first minister told me it was "complete nonsense" to suggest he was managed out the door in a plot by political colleagues.

As Mr Yousaf's fate was sealed, Mr Swinney's name was mentioned immediately, and it became clear the party hierarchy had their man.

A significant role for Kate Forbes?

Talks of a Swinney coronation emboldened and angered some in former leadership contender Kate Forbes' camp.

Sources close to Ms Forbes were briefing their fury, with suggestions of a "stitch-up" on the cards by the "men in grey suits".

Days of Holyrood drama followed with banks of cameras, photographers, and journalists pouncing on Ms Forbes and Mr Swinney whenever they were spotted.

Ms Forbes, who got almost 50% of the membership vote in the bruising 2023 contest, held an understated level of power.

There was a sense a contest could be costly, both politically and financially - and frantic, secret discussions were going on to thrash out a deal.

As late as nine hours before Mr Swinney took to the podium to confirm he was standing to become SNP chief, the Forbes camp was suggesting they hadn't made up their mind.

I had a call from one of her allies at 12.30am. It heightened the sense of jeopardy and power at play.

Mr Swinney's speech only mentioned one SNP member by name: Kate Forbes. He was at pains to stress the importance of bringing his rival (and her large chunk of support) back into the fold. He wanted unity. He needs unity.

In a room at the Scottish Parliament the Forbes team was watching it unfold live. It seems they heard what they needed to hear.

She was promised a "significant" role in Swinney's cabinet.

What does that look like, and how would success be measured?

Mr Swinney has promised competence in a reset government team.

There are questions about how much change he will be able to pursue given the SNP has been in power for close to two decades.

Labour is hot on the heels of the SNP and Mr Swinney knows that.

His opponents say his job is to manage the decline - but his supporters argue he is the SNP's saviour who will steady the ship after 24 months the party would rather forget.