The final result was no surprise, though the margin of victory was smaller than many had expected. In the final round of voting, Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs & Fair Work, Keith Brown, won the SNP’s Depute leadership contest, beating rival Julie Hepburn by 55% to 45%. Although he announced a new policy to support firms affected by Brexit, there was nothing new on a future independence referendum, the main topic of the contest. Instead, the Cabinet Secretary emphasised his “absolute confidence” in the approach Nicola Sturgeon had set out. In short, he was happy to wait and see.
The contest had been a three-way fight between the Cabinet Secretary – widely regarded as the frontrunner – Chris McElney, leader of the SNP on Inverclyde council, and party activist Julie Hepburn, who works for SNP MP Stuart McDonald but does not hold elected office. The Cabinet Secretary received 48% on the first round of voting, boosted to 55% following the redistribution of Chris McElney’s votes, who was knocked out on the first round.
The campaign had been subdued, with agreement about the need for a second referendum – although not on timing. Keith Brown had taken the most cautious approach, echoing the First Minister’s view that a second referendum should be held when the effects of Brexit were clear. Julie Hepburn was less hesitant, arguing for a referendum before the next Scottish Parliament election in 2021, while Chris McElney called for one “within the next 18 months”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the new Depute Leader’s acceptance speech was very much on message, and familiar themes around the SNP rejecting austerity and the “damage and despair” of Brexit were evident. On this, he announced a new fund to help secure the “vitally important” trading relationship with Europe, with businesses of all sizes able to apply for £4,000 support grants to promote export activity and mitigate the risks of Brexit. The SNP, he said, would continue to “stand behind” Scottish businesses.
The former Royal Marine was bullish about the health of the SNP and the wider Yes movement. He hailed polling that indicated the SNP was leading at both Holyrood and Westminster and claimed this was a “springboard” for future campaigning on independence.
On the timing of a second referendum, however, there was nothing new and he said this would be decided by Nicola Sturgeon, who he felt was the “safest of hands”. Building on this slow and steady approach, the new Depute Leader closed by calling on delegates to get “ready for that decision.”
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